Friday, December 19, 2008

A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods


From the Cool Tools blog:

If you've ever wondered how to model something, or were looking for new ideas for segmenting and presenting complex concepts, this is an incredible online resource.

Programmer's Bill of Rights

I would say this goes for anyone analyzing data, as well.

Blog post by Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror
  1. Every programmer shall have two monitors
  2. Every programmer shall have a fast PC
  3. Every programmer shall have their choice of mouse and keyboard
  4. Every programmer shall have a comfortable chair
  5. Every programmer shall have a fast internet connection - Good programmers never write what they can steal.
  6. Every programmer shall have quiet working conditions - Programmers cannot work effectively in an interrupt-driven environment.
The few basic rights we're asking for are easy. They aren't extravagant demands. They're fundamental to the quality of work life for a software developer. If the company you work for isn't getting it right, making it right is neither expensive nor difficult. Demand your rights as a programmer! And remember: you can either change your company, or you can change your company.

Hardware is Cheap, Programmers are Expensive

Blog post by Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror

Given the rapid advance of Moore's Law, when does it make sense to throw hardware at a programming problem? As a general rule, I'd say almost always.

Incidentally, this is also why failing to outfit your (relatively) highly paid programmers with decent equipment as per the Programmer's Bill of Rights is such a colossal mistake. If a one-time investment of $4,000 on each programmer makes them merely 5% more productive, you'll break even after the first year. Every year after that you've made a profit. Also, having programmers who believe that their employers actually give a damn about them is probably a good business strategy for companies that actually want to be around five or ten years from now.


Programmers have a tendency to get lost in the details of optimizing for the sake of optimization... If you're not extremely careful, you could end up spending a lot of very expensive development time with very little to show for it. Or, worse, you'll find yourself facing a slew of new, even more subtle bugs in your codebase.

Rules of Optimization:
Rule 1: Don't do it.
Rule 2 (for experts only): Don't do it yet.
- M.A. Jackson

Thought-provoking (and contrarian) advice from Mike Rowe

Article on

As a huge fan of Dirty Jobs, I think Mike Rowe's career advice is definitely something to ponder:

So why are people with dirty jobs having more fun than the rest of us?

The answer (aside from the fact that they're still employed) is because they are blissfully sheltered from the worst advice in the world. In particular, I'm thinking of a specific piece of nonsense that implores in earnest italics, to always, always ... Follow Your Passion!

If I've learned anything from this show, it's the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a "true purpose." In fact, the happiest people I've met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all--they have instead brought it with them.

These guys are passionate about what they do, but none of them aspired to the careers they now enjoy. None of them were guided by a burning desire to do a particular thing. What they did was step back from the crowd and watch carefully to see where everyone else was going. Then, they simply went the other way. They followed the available opportunities--not their passion--and built a balanced life around the willingness to do a job that nobody else wanted to.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Defining Freelancers and Entrepreneurs

Post by Seth Godin on OpenForum

A freelancer is someone who gets paid for her work. She charges by the hour or perhaps by the project. Freelancers write, design, consult, advise, do taxes and hang wallpaper. Freelancing is the single easiest way to start a new business.

Entrepreneurs use money (preferably someone else's money) to build a business bigger than themselves. Entrepreneurs make money when they sleep. Entrepreneurs focus on growth and on scaling the systems that they build. The more, the better.

The goal of a freelancer is to have a steady job with no boss, to do great work, to gradually increase demand so that the hourly wage goes up and the quality of gigs goes up too.

The goal of the entrepreneur is to sell out for a lot of money, or to build a long-term profit machine that is steady, stable and not particularly risky to run.

The trap is simple: Sometime freelancers get entrepreneur envy and start hiring other freelancers to work for them. This doesn't scale. If you're an entrepreneur, it is impossible to succeed by using your own labor to fill the gaps. That's because your labor is finite. It doesn't scale. That's because if it's a job only you can do, you're not building a system, you're just hiring yourself (and probably not paying enough either).

The solution is easy. If you're a freelancer, freelance. Figure out how to do the best work in your field, the best work for the right clients. Don't fret about turning away work, and don't fret about
occasional down time. You're a freelance for hire, and you need to focus on your reputation and the flow of business. Find partners if you like but keep the cash flows separate.

If you're an entrepreneur, don't hire yourself. Build a business that works, that thrives with or without you. It might not be good for your ego, but it will be good for your bank account.

Whatever you do, don't mix em up.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Complexity is patentable, otherwise - rely on execution

Seth Godin's post on Selling Ideas to a Big Company

... the more complicated your idea is, the better off you are patenting it. Dean Kamen made his fortune patenting wheelchairs and other devices that you and I could never hope to build. On the other hand, if your idea is simple enough to dream up in a week, the only way you're going to protect it is to build it, fast and well.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The economics of free

i.e. "How do you make money by giving away stuff?"
Mike Masnick of Techdirt

So, the simple bulletpoint version:
  1. Redefine the market based on the benefits
  2. Break the benefits down into scarce and infinite components.
  3. Set the infinite components free, syndicate them, make them easy to get -- all to increase the value of the scarce components
  4. Charge for the scarce components that are tied to infinite components
A concrete example: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails)
Infinite component: music (latest album given away for free)
Scarce component: seats at his concert tour

Another one: The String Cheese Incident (another music band)
Infinite component: music
Scarce component: concert tickets, time, flights, lodging, access to band

The music (the non-scarce good) helps them sell a lot more tickets to concerts (a scarce good). However, that band took it a step further. They set up their own travel agency to help fans attend their concerts -- and have been making money there, by saving people time (scarce good!) and helping them secure flights (scarce good) and lodging (scarce good), all in the pursuit of access to the band (scarce good) who they value so much because of the music (non-scarce good).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Talks by Insightful, Influential People

Pop!Tech Pop!Casts

TED Talks

A simple goal to shoot for

Smart, and gets things done.

courtesy of Joel Spolsky* and now Marissa Mayer**

*The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing v3, 10/25/2006
**For personal reference, Marissa Mayer is Vice President of Search Product and User Experience at Google as of December 10, 2008.

My career goal is to leave each company being described in that way.

Another description of the ideal employee from Seth Godin's blog:

My favorite combination is the quiet confidence of knowledge, combined with the humility that comes from realizing that you're pretty lucky and that you have no idea at all what's guaranteed to work tomorrow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Genetic Algorithms and the Mona Lisa

Link to blog post by Roger Alsing

50 semi-transparent polygons, with vertex locations and color being determined by a genetic algorithm - evaluation function is a comparison to the actual Mona Lisa.

What's instructive here is the simplicity of the model: 4 parameters per polygon - 3 vertices and the color, for a total of 200 parameters. I'm guessing the evaluation consists of summing all the polygons and then doing some kind of image comparison - wonder how fast it runs?

The final result appears after close to a million iterations...but recognizable image occurs around 100,000 generations. Also, comments point out that the algorithm does not appear to be a standard "genetic" algorithm, but instead a stochastic hill-climbing algorithm.

FAQ by Roger Alsing
Source code
A Clojure version of the same approach

Another update:
A very detailed look at optimizing this image compression approach

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why corporations do things the way they do...

You build a nice big room-sized cage, and in one end of it you put five monkeys. In the other end you put the banana. Then you stand by with the fire hose. Sooner or later one of the monkeys is going to go after the banana, and when it does you turn on the fire hose and spray the other monkeys with it. Replace the banana if needed, then repeat the process. Monkeys are pretty smart, so they’ll figure this out pretty quickly: “If anybody goes for the banana, the rest of us get the hose.” Soon they’ll attack any member of their group who tries to go to the banana.

Once this happens, you take one monkey out of the cage and bring in a new one. The new monkey will come in, try to make friends, then probably go for the banana. And the other monkeys, knowing what this means, will attack him to stop you from using the hose on them. Eventually the new monkey will get the message, and will even start joining in on the attack if somebody else goes for the banana. Once this happens, take another of the original monkeys out of the cage and bring in another new monkey.

After repeating this a few times, there will come a moment when none of the monkeys in the cage have ever been sprayed by the fire hose; in fact, they’ll never even have seen the hose. But they’ll attack any monkey who goes to get the banana. If the monkeys could speak English, and if you could ask them why they attack anyone who goes for the banana, their answer would almost certainly be: “Well, I don’t really know, but that’s how we’ve always done things around here.”

"Corporations" could be replaced by any group with turnover and institutional history.

Unsourced story was used in this interesting post about Python 3.0

Monday, December 1, 2008

The only diet advice you'll ever need

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
- Michael Pollan

Link to article on his website

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bailout for Detroit? Heck No!

Link to blog post by Seth Godin

Not only should Congress encourage/facilitate the organized bankruptcy of the Big Three, but it should also make it easy for them to be replaced by 500 new car companies.

Or perhaps a thousand.

That's how many car companies there were 90 years ago.

What we don't need are giant companies with limited choice, confused priorities, private jets and a bully's attitude.

Link to Business Week article
that mentions:

Three different members of the House of Representatives pointed out on Nov. 19 that the three CEOs and the union chief were flown to Washington in separate, private planes.

For the second straight day, members of Congress asked the CEOs if they would limit their own salaries. The suggestions ranged from $1 million a year as suggested by one congressman to $1 a year for the next year or two as suggested by another. Only Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli agreed, while GM's Wagoner and Ford's Mulally sidestepped the question.

From another article, when Ford CEO Alan Mulally was asked about dropping his salary from $21.6 million (last year) to $1:
I understand the point of the symbol, (but) I think I'm OK where I am.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Collaborative Editing

Link to EtherPad

It’s comparable to Google Docs or a wiki, but it’s far more useful. You start off by creating a new workspace. You type basic text on numbered lines at will. Then invite someone else in and have them type as well. Each user’s edits are highlighted a different color. Changes are made in absolute real time, something even Google hasn’t been able to do (Google docs update every fifteen seconds).

Users can also chat in the sidebar, save versions and make a few tweaks to the settings like removing line numbers. One great feature optionally highlights Javascript syntax (making this a great way to write code collaboratively) And that’s it for now. There is very little bling to the site at this point.

High-throughput sequencing - the future?

Link to NY Times article

Using cells donated by a woman in her 50s who died of leukemia, the scientists sequenced all the DNA from her cancer cells and compared it to the DNA from her own normal, healthy skin cells. Then, they zeroed in on 10 mutations that occurred only in the cancer cells, apparently spurring abnormal growth, preventing the cells from suppressing that growth and enabling them to fight off chemotherapy.

Leaving aside the nit-picky details like how they selected the cell(s) to expand to a quantity sufficient for sequencing, how homogeneous the expanded cells were, how similar the expanded cells are to the original tumor cells, etc. etc., I believe this is the future of bioinformatics. When sequencing is fast and cheap enough that we can sequence everything quickly, we can answer new questions that are not tractable using current techniques.

Besides, playing with that much sequence data will be challenging (and super-fun!).

Other keywords: deep sequencing


Courtesy of the Nov. 12, 2008 Mythbusters episode that had a segment about polishing crap (literally)

Link to Wikipedia article

Dirt, and time. That's all you need... Amazing.

Link to a photo gallery and more information

Reacting, Responding and Initiating

Link to blog post by Seth Godin

Most knowledge workers spend their day doing one of three things:
  • React (badly) to external situations
  • Respond (well) to external inputs
  • Initiate new events or ideas
How much of your time is spent reacting to what people say in meetings or emails? The rest of your day may be spent responding. And that's it. You go home having done virtually nothing in the third bucket.

Some marketing jobs are about responding. None are about reacting. The best ones are about initiating.

Group Theory

Or how teams get exponentially dumber as the number of members increase...

One commonly held inflection point is ~150 (I'm using the layman's definition of the phrase, not the mathematical one)
Wikipedia article on Dunbar's number

In his 2000 best-seller The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell described Gore’s traditional practice of limiting the size of its plants to roughly 150 workers, because that was the largest group of people who could know one another well enough to converse in the hallway.

Link to Workforce Management article about W.L. Gore

Another classic example of a "tribal" workplace is GE's Durham jet engine plant

Link to FastCompany article

GE/Durham has more than 170 employees but just one boss: the plant manager. Everyone in the place reports to her. Which means that on a day-to-day basis, the people who work here have no boss. They essentially run themselves.

The jet engines are produced by nine teams of people -- teams that are given just one basic directive: the day that their next engine must be loaded onto a truck. All other decisions -- who does what work; how to balance training, vacations, overtime against work flow; how to make the manufacturing process more efficient; how to handle teammates who slack off -- all of that stays within the team.

Everyone knows how much money everyone else makes, because employees are paid according to his or her skill. There are three grades of jet-assembly technician at this plant -- tech-1, tech-2, and tech-3 -- and there is one wage rate for each grade. There is no conventional assembly line. One team "owns" an engine from beginning to end -- from the point when parts are uncrated and staged to the moment a team member climbs on a forklift to place the finished engine on a truck for shipment. The members of the team do the jobs that interest them. No one ever does the same job, shift after shift, day after day. There is usually choice -- and there is always variety.

This plant has no time clock. Workers leave to go to their kids' band concerts and Little League games. Every technician has an email address and Internet access, voice mail, business cards, and a desk shared with one teammate. The plant manager -- the boss -- sits in an open cubicle that's located right on the factory floor: Engines float by, just 20 feet away.


The techs at GE/Durham have challenging jobs that matter, they have a degree of control over their work that is almost unprecedented, they adhere to demanding performance standards, they receive the training and support that they need to do the best work they can--and, as a result, they do just that. There is somethng so extraordinary about this place that you wish you could walk through it with Karl Marx and Max Weber--just to hear them explain how its revolutionary culture squares with their theories about the dehumanization of work in modern society.

Why do we tip?

Link to NY Times article

Economists have struggled to explain tipping. Why tip at all, since
the bill is presented at the end of a meal and can't retroactively
improve service? And certainly there's no reason to tip at a
restaurant you will never revisit.

"The need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the
unequal relationship is so strong that very few are able to ignore
it." Ego needs also play a part, especially when it comes to
overtipping, according to the Israeli social psychologist Boas Shamir.
Ego needs also play a part, especially when it comes to overtipping,
according to the Israeli social psychologist Boas Shamir.

Incentive-based Management

(Always fails...)

Link to article by Joel Spolsky

There's a great book on the subject by Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin -- Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations. The book's central thesis is fairly simple: When you try to measure people's performance, you have to take into account how they are going to react. Inevitably, people will figure out how to get the number you want at the expense of what you are not measuring, including things you can't measure, such as morale and customer goodwill.

...His point is that incentive plans based on measuring performance always backfire. Not sometimes. Always. What you measure is inevitably a proxy for the outcome you want, and even though you may think that all you have to do is tweak the incentives to boost sales, you can't. It's not going to work. Because people have brains and are endlessly creative when it comes to improving their personal well-being at everyone else's expense.

An Interview with Costco's CEO - Jim Sinegal

Link to FastCompany interview

Some of those analysts have argued that Costco's generosity to its workers hurts the company and its shareholders.

You have to recognize -- and I don't mean this in an acrimonious sense -- that the people in that business are trying to make money between now and next Thursday. We're trying to build a company that's going to be here 50 and 60 years from now. We owe that to the communities where we do business. We owe that to our employees, that they can count on us for security. We have 140,000 employees and their families; that's a significant number of people who count on us. We owe it to our suppliers. Think about the people who produce products for us -- you could probably multiply our family of employees by three or four times. And we owe it to our customers to continue to offer good prices. Our presence in a community makes pricing better throughout that community because when you have a tough competitor in the marketplace, prices come down.

And I quite like this little anecdote:

The reason we did it originally was exactly as you're suggesting -- to save money. We put the skylights in so that we didn't have to turn the lights on. But of course it's also environmentally correct. We also recycle all the boxes that the goods come in. And we're working on how we can simplify packaging and save on fuel. We just reconfigured our cashews. They were in a round canister, and we put them in a square canister. It sounds crazy, but we saved something like 560 truckloads a year of that one product. That's significant savings.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Minimalist Workspace

Link to blog post

Related blog post

Favorite quote (from the second link):

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
- William Morris Workspace of the Week

Friday, October 31, 2008

Quotes on Competence

If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.
- Kurt Vonnegut

The adversary she found herself forced to fight was not worth matching or beating; it was not a superior ability which she would have found honor in challenging; it was ineptitude - a gray spread of cotton that seemed soft and shapeless, that could offer no resistance to anything or anybody, yet managed to be a barrier in her way.
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I'm a huge fan of Lois McMaster Bujold's writing - the Vorkosigan Saga in particular.

The will to be stupid is a very powerful force, but there are always alternatives.
- Lois McMaster Bujold

And a potential inspiration for this quote

Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super-- [chuckles evilly] -- no one will be.
- Syndrome, in The Incredibles

is quite possibly

The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.
- Kurt Vonnegut

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Key to Greatness: Obsession

Guest post on the Zen Habits blog

Quote from a friend of the blogger:
If you want to be good at something, you have to to be obsessive. You have to do the thing all the time, and when you’re not doing it, you have to be thinking about doing it. Why do you think business people who make millions are so good at it? They’re always doing business. Even when they’re not working, they’re thinking about better ways to do business. Same with the greatest writers and painters. They obsess all the time.
James Watson's (of Watson and Crick) tips for greatness:
  • Go for broke
  • Have a way to get the answer
  • Be obsessive
  • Be part of a team
  • Talk to your opponents
  • Never be the brightest person on the room

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Progressive Tax - Socialist or Capitalist?

Link to New Yorker article

“Nobody likes high taxes,” Obama said. “Of course not.” Still, he explained:
I do believe that for folks like me who’ve worked hard but frankly also been lucky, I don’t mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress who I just met over there. . . . She can barely make the rent. . . . And I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.
The principle that Obama evinced, which most economists would regard as unexceptionable, can be traced to Adam Smith. In “The Wealth of Nations” (1776), his seminal treatise on capitalism, Smith wrote:
The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . . The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . . . It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Willing to follow Warren Buffett's advice?

Link to NY Times op-ed by Warren Buffett

The financial world is a mess, both in the United States and abroad.
Its problems, moreover, have been leaking into the general economy,
and the leaks are now turning into a gusher. In the near term,
unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines
will continue to be scary.

So ... I've been buying American stocks.


A simple rule dictates my buying: Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors. To be sure, investors are right to be wary of highly leveraged entities or businesses in weak competitive positions. But fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation's many sound companies make no sense. These businesses will indeed suffer earnings hiccups, as they always have. But most major companies will be setting new profit records 5, 10 and 20 years from now.

Today people who hold cash equivalents feel comfortable. They shouldn't. They have opted for a terrible long-term asset, one that pays virtually nothing and is certain to depreciate in value. Indeed, the policies that government will follow in its efforts to alleviate the current crisis will probably prove inflationary and therefore accelerate declines in the real value of cash accounts.

Equities will almost certainly outperform cash over the next decade, probably by a substantial degree. Those investors who cling now to cash are betting they can efficiently time their move away from it later. In waiting for the comfort of good news, they are ignoring Wayne Gretzky's advice: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A cynical view of life

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for - in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.
- Ellen Goodman

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Quote from Seth Godin

Link to his brief blog article

Success is now the domain of people who lead. That doesn’t mean they’re in charge, it doesn’t mean they are the CEO, it merely means that for a group, even a small group, they show the way, they spread ideas, they make change. Those people are the only successful people we’ve got.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Excellent quotes

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
- Sir Richard Steele

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.
- Samuel Johnson

The modern form of Samuel Johnson's quote is "The Waiter Rule"

"Watch out for people who have a situational value system, who can turn the charm on and off depending on the status of the person they are interacting with. Be especially wary of those who are rude to people perceived to be in subordinate roles."

Nearly all men can stand adversity - but give him power, and the extent of his character will be revealed.
- Anonymous

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
- Carl Jung

“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
- Lao Tzu

From a post titled "The Lazy Manifesto" at

My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what's really going on to be scared.
- PJ Plauger

"Wisdom begins in wonder."
- Socrates

Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.
- John Ruskin

Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.
- Robert Frost

From a post about Socratic living at

The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.
- Joseph Campbell

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
- Joseph Campbell

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
- Aristotle

If you can’t solve a problem, it’s because you’re playing by the rules.
- Paul Arden

The truth is, creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.
- Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford Engineering School.

The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data.
- John Tukey

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Subtle (But Important) Distinction

Link to Erik Rasmussen's blog article

Agnosticism versus Atheism

Let’s examine the subtle difference in meaning between the following two sentences.
  1. An atheist believes that God does not exist.
  2. An atheist does not believe that God exists.
I suspect that all people who call themselves atheists share my complaint about the definition of atheism. I’ve looked up the word in three dictionaries, and they all say that #1 is more correct. I really hate that. When I call myself an atheist, I’m using definition #2. The second definition better represents the scientific line of thinking, specifically the null hypothesis, that leads one to atheism. The null hypothesis states that any extraordinary claim must be assumed to be false and the burden of proof is on the claimant. If sufficient reason to believe the claim is not given, one should not believe it is true. Notice that…
not believe is true != believe is false

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Role of Management - Joel Spolsky

Joel Spolsky's article at

Three stories: Juno, Microsoft, and Fog Creek
Bonus: GE Durham Engine Plant

For a company of Juno's size -- it had about 150 employees at the time - there seemed to be a disproportional number of managers.

I noticed too many situations in which members of top management happily issued an executive fiat even though they were the least qualified to make a decision. I'm not saying that they were stupid, mind you. Most of the managers at Juno were quite smart. But they had hired even smarter people to work for them: people with advanced degrees, raw intellectual firepower, and years of experience. And these people would work on a problem for a long time, come up with a pretty good solution, and then watch in surprise as their bosses overruled them. Executives who did not have specific technical knowledge and who had not studied a problem in depth would swoop down and issue some random, uninformed decree, and it would be implemented - often with farcical results.

A bit of Redmond lore: Two software designers got into a debate over how something should be implemented. The question was highly technical. They couldn't reach agreement, so they went to their boss, a guy named Mike Maples, who was the vice president in charge of the applications division.

"What do I know about this?" he yelled at them. "Of the three people in this room, I'm the one who knows the least. You guys have been hashing this out for hours. I'm the last person who should be deciding. Work it out."

And frankly, people here seem to be happier with a little bit of middle management. Not middle management that's going to overrule the decisions they make on their own. Not symbolic middle management that only makes people feel important. But middle management that creates useful channels of communication. If my job is getting obstacles out of the way so my employees can get their work done, these managers exist so that, when an employee has a local problem, there's someone there, in the office next door, whom they can talk to.

Ah.....Lego =)

Post at Dan's Blog (of fame)

The set mentioned in the post is very cool-looking Lego Technic Excavator. The picture is a little disappointing, so here's the Amazon link. I just think it's awesome because the idea of a Lego gearbox is just so cool. I don't think it beats the gearbox in the Lego Technic Super Street Sensation, which actually has multiple speeds, in addition to reverse. In Lego!

I remember my summer of Lego, during grad school, with the huge Etoys order for an excessive number of mostly Star Wars sets (darn you, Ultimate Collector's Series, for being so tempting)

Favorite sets
Super Street Sensation
UCS X-Wing

Honorary mention
Silver Champion

Sets I wish I was foolish enough to own
Imperial Star Destroyer
Millenium Falcon

Top-ranked set on Lugnet
Green Grocer
Seems technically cool (3 floors, lots of detail), but not sexy like the Super Street Sensation

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Link to article

He [Jason Kilar, CEO of Hulu] and his crew would emerge from their dismal cave with the sleekest, easiest-to-use, most professional video site on the Internet. Not only would it deliver shows and movies from Fox and NBC Universal, it would take you to programs from every other major network and studio. Full-length episodes. Entire seasons. For free. Within months of that late-August announcement, Hulu would be among the top 10 US video sites in number of clips streamed. Om Malik, one of the bloggers who had ridiculed it from the start, would pronounce it "brilliant." TechCrunch readers would vote it best video startup of 2007. "Game Over. Hulu Wins," Arrington would declare in a conciliatory post. How did that happen?

One paragraph, "As Dobron describes it, the initial business plan was all too predictable...", describes how Hulu was originally going to be "business as usual" - with the media company limiting the content in order to protect its existing business lines (syndication and DVD sales). However, this most likely would have failed, as previous ventures had in the past. Instead, they brought in an "outsider" to develop Hulu, underscoring the importance of occasionally questioning the assumptions and limits that people (and/or businesses) place on themselves.

The plan was to outsource both the site design and the underlying computer code. Kilar was aghast. "Technology is the source of our competitive advantage," he explains—the key to a service that would provide a high-quality videostream and support an ever-growing number of users and shows. "For us to design the company to last, we had to write every line of code ourselves." He sent the network people back to their old jobs and told the consultants they were out.

Chernin says. "You can't protect old business models artificially." This is a truth the tech community knows well, but it's not what you expect to hear from a media baron like Chernin. What he and Zucker have come to understand is that the media companies no longer have a choice: If they don't put their shows online, someone else will. "The best way to combat piracy is to make your content available," Zucker says. "We don't know for sure what the impact is going to be on our established businesses. But we want to make sure consumers know they don't need to steal our content. That's really what Hulu is about."

Finally, after decades of dictating what we can watch and when, the networks would be reduced to a Web widget, functioning at the user's whim. Just as it should be.

Monday, September 1, 2008

6 Questions to Ask Yourself to Get the Most Out of Life

Article at ZenHabits

1. Who do I love, and what am I doing about it?
2. Am I pursuing my dream, or is fear stopping me?
3. Am I doing something that matters?
4. What am I doing to help others?
5. Am I as good a person as I want to be?
6. What am I doing to live life with passion, health and energy?

For #2, it is well worth watching Randy Pausch's "last lecture" - Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

The accompanying text to #3 is worth excerpting in full.

There's a difference between doing work, and doing work that really
matters. Much of the time, we use up the few days we have on this
earth with busy-work, stuff that doesn't make much difference, and
that's sadly a waste of our lives.

Recently on Dumb Little Man, writer Ali Hale suggested you ask
yourself, "Will this matter in five years?" I think this is a great
question. It helps you distinguish between trivial busy-work that will
take up all of your time but not matter in a few years, and tasks and
projects and goals with high impact that will make a difference, in
your career, in your life, in the lives of others.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Link to article

Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein, two Tokyo-based architects who have turned PowerPoint, that fixture of cubicle life, into both art form and competitive sport. Their innovation, dubbed pecha-kucha (Japanese for "chatter"), applies a simple set of rules to presentations: exactly 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. That's it. Say what you need to say in six minutes and 40 seconds of exquisitely matched words and images and then sit the hell down.

Link to JoelOnSoftware article

It sounded like a good idea. Speakers have to plan very carefully and rehearse repeatedly to make sure their speech is going to synchronize correctly with the slides, which makes for a more polished speech. They have to edit mercilessly to boil their subject matter down to 400 seconds, which makes it more interesting and dynamic. And if they suck, well, you don't have to wait very long for them to go away!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

101 Atheist Quotes

An interesting read for atheists and religious people alike:

Link to Atheist Blogger page

Another quote that I quite like:

The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.

- Eric Hoffer

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Advice on how to run effective meetings

Link to Cnet article

For companies to operate effectively, executives, managers, and key employees need to know how to run effective meetings. Meetings are how conflicts are resolved and plans are agreed upon. They are how critical strategic and operating processes are developed, managed, and to some extent, executed. Conversely, ineffective meetings result in lost productivity and frustration. They can also be a sign of a dysfunctional workplace, which can result in operating failure.

Three rules of meeting etiquette
  1. Every meeting has a start time and an end time.
  2. Every meeting is run by someone who is responsible for every aspect of the meeting including agenda, attendance, punctuality, and documentation. That person keeps everyone on topic and moves the meeting along using the methods described below.
  3. Key decisions that are reached during the meeting regarding strategies, plans or objectives should be published by whoever ran the meeting within one day. That also goes for follow-up or action required and an owner for each item.
Five rules of engagement for effective meetings
  1. Listening is good. Gratuitous speech is bad. Silence means consent. Don't chime in just to hear your own voice.
  2. Presenting new ideas or brainstorming is good. Knocking down another's idea is bad. There's a time for reaching consensus.
  3. Attack the problem or issue, not the person you disagree with. "I don't agree with you" is okay, but "I think you're an idiot" isn't.
  4. Stay on topic, but don't beat a dead horse. Save other subjects for other meetings. Use a "parking lot" for important issues that may need to be revisited at a later date.
  5. Be open, honest, and forthcoming. Don't hold back, bullshit, or sugar-coat issues. This is especially critical in meetings where key decisions are based on the information presented.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Death of Network Television

Link to article

Cable networks target just those viewers who want what they have to offer. Broadcast networks want everyone. And the business of wanting everyone has never been worse. At the end of last season, ABC, CBS, and NBC reported their smallest combined audience ever, an event that has become a gloomy yearly occurrence.

Ways that broadcast TV might be reborn:
  1. Accept the fact that niche is the new normal
  2. Know your brand
  3. Don't count on "flow" unless all your programming is aimed at the same audience
  4. Content counts
  5. When you say the TV season is 52 weeks, you have to mean it
  6. Don't break faith with your audience
  7. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em
  8. Lowered expectations can be your best friend
Conversations about the future of television tend to vault way past next week or next year into a world where schedules don't exist and 10,000 programming options are all available at any moment, half of them fully interactive... It sounds like fun. But in reality, the number of cable channels has topped out. And the number of households that subscribe to basic cable—about 65 million—hasn't budged for a decade.

To redefine itself, FX had to make casual viewers expendable in order to build its rep with committed ones. "We want to have somebody's favorite show," Landgraf says, "not everybody's 10th-favorite show."

"A lot of times, we'll premiere an episode of Top Chef and then rerun the episode right when it's over. And people stay tuned! Some of our shows are really like crack," he laughs. This practice makes sense in two ways: It's cost-efficient and it builds loyalty. The tactic used to be dismissed as killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, until people noticed that the goose kept on thriving. Now it's just a matter, as Cohen puts it, of "feeding the beast."

Discussions at the networks about what's depleting their viewership tend to focus on familiar culprits: YouTube. The internet. Xbox. The iPod. Too many options. Instead, the networks should try to make TV shows for people who want to watch TV shows.

Broadcast networks routinely spend three months promoting a show that they then cancel after two airings. Or they get a few million viewers hooked on a serialized drama and then drop it midway through a season, leaving fans hanging. This simply never happens on cable, where if a series gets a 13-episode order, those 13 episodes are damn well going to air, even if it's just because there’s nothing else to take their place. Every time the networks reshuffle their grid in a spasm of quick-fix panic, they disenchant more viewers. (a textbook example: Joss Whedon's Firefly)

For 50 years, pop culture has moved in only one direction—toward more options, fewer mass phenomena, and greater consumer control. And there's no turning that around, especially with a generation of viewers that sees no meaningful distinction between a broadcast network and a cable channel.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shai Agassi - Better Places

Shai Agassi's TED Talk

Link to article

The problem, he decided, was oil-consuming, CO2-spewing cars. The solution was to get rid of them. Not just some, and not just by substituting hybrids or flex fuels. No half measures. The internal combustion engine had to be retired. The future was in electric cars.

Agassi reimagined the entire automotive ecosystem by proposing a new concept he called the Electric Recharge Grid Operator. It was an unorthodox mashup of the automotive and mobile phone industries. Instead of gas stations on every corner, the ERGO would blanket a country with a network of "smart" charge spots. Drivers could plug in anywhere, anytime, and would subscribe to a specific plan—unlimited miles, a maximum number of miles each month, or pay as you go—all for less than the equivalent cost for gas. They'd buy their car from the operator, who would offer steep discounts, perhaps even give the cars away. The profit would come from selling electricity—the minutes.

When I ask Shai if he's worried about a competitor stealing his idea, he stares at me like I'm an idiot. "The mission is to end oil," he says, "not create a company."

Most startups try out their product on beta testers. Agassi wanted a beta country. A cooperative national government would be willing to modify the tax code or offer other incentives—essential to getting consumers on board quickly.

The entire staff is trying to write a mission statement with help from a moderator. He flips through slides on a screen: "Our mission is to transform personal mobility." "Our mission is to break the world's oil addiction (before it breaks us)."

Agassi, in a black leather jacket, a stiff blue-and-white button-down, and faded jeans, stops the moderator. "We still think we're selling to them," he says, after one of his long, drawn-out pauses. "We're not. It's not us to them. It's them to us. You see, people want this to happen; we just happen to be in the way of their getting what they want. We can't give them the car fast enough. That's something we need to capture: 'We're here to serve you,' not 'We're here to sell to you.' We're a facilitator, not the creator. This is going to be a community. We just need to get out of their way. They're going to push for policy, they're going to sell the cars, they're going to be zealots."

Update: article on EVs being deployed in Hawaii, and the reasons why Hawaii is ideal as a test site

Update: article showing Better Place's battery swap prototype

What should companies build? (Steve Yegge)

Stevey's Blog Rants: Business Requirements are Bullshit

Some investing advice:

Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, both famous and successful investors, say pretty much the same thing about investing. Peter Lynch's mantra sums it up: "invest in what you know."

If you actually take the time to read Lynch's books (which I have), you'll see that this pithy mantra is a placeholder for something a bit more subtle: you should invest in what you know and like. You should invest in companies that make products or services that you are personally excited about buying or using right now.

When you invest with this strategy, you're taking advantage of your local knowledge, which tends to be more accurate than complicated quantitative packets put together by analysts. And your local knowledge is definitely more accurate than the reports produced by the companies, who want to paint themselves in the nicest light.

Warren took a lot of heat in the 1990s for not investing in the tech sector. But hey, he didn't feel comfortable with tech, so he didn't invest in it. One way to look at this is: "ha ha, what a dinosaur, he sure missed out, and now he's, uh, only the richest person in the world by a small margin." But another, more accurate way to look at it is this: he's the richest person in the world, you asshole. When he gives you investment advice, take it!

Let's say, for instance, that you hear that Subway (the sandwich franchise) is going to do an IPO. They've been privately held all these years and now they're going public. Should you invest? Well, let's see... the decision now isn't quite as cut-and-dried as it was in their rapid-expansion phase, so, um, let me see, with current economic conditions, I expect their sales to, uh... let me see if I can find their earnings statement and maybe some analyst reports...

No! No, No, NO!!! Bad investor! That's the kind of thinking that loses your money. The only question you should be asking yourself is: how many Subway sandwiches have I eaten in the past six months? If the number is nontrivial — say, at least six of them — and the rate of sandwiches per month that you eat is either constant or increasing, then you can think about looking at their financials. If you don't eat their sandwiches, then you'd better have a LOT of friends who eat them every day, or you're breaking the cardinal rule of Buffett and Lynch.

The key message of the blog post (takes a while to get there):

You can look at any phenomenally successful company, and it's pretty obvious that their success was founded on building on something they personally wanted. The extent that any company begins to deviate from this course is the extent to which their ship starts taking on water.

And the key leading indicator that they're getting ready to head off course? You guessed it: it's when they start talking about gathering business requirements.

Because, dude, face it: if it's something you want, then you already know what the requirements are. You don't need to "gather" them. You think about it all the time. You can list the requirements from memory. And usually it's pretty simple.

And the most important part, if you want to start your own company (the example Steve uses is the Flip camcorder):

You don't need an original idea to be successful. You really don't. You just need to make something that people want. Even if someone else appears to be making something popular, it's usually possible to improve on the idea and grab market share. And it's painfully counterintuitive at times, but the best improvements often come from simplifying.

The easiest way to build a product that kicks ass is to start with someone else's great idea (camcorders, for instance), and take stuff away.

In any event, originality is overrated. Coming up with something completely original isn't just hard to do: it's also hard to sell, because investors (and possibly customers) will need to be educated on what this new thing is and why people would want it. And when it comes to buying stuff, nobody likes to be educated. If the product isn't immediately obvious, investors and customers will pass it up.

It's easy to come up with new product ideas if you start with the understanding that everything sucks. There are no completely solved problems. Just because someone appears to be dominating a market with an "ideal" offering doesn't mean you can't take market share from them by building a better one. Everything can stand improvement. Just think about what you'd change if you were doing it for yourself, and everything should start falling into place.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pro-lifers! Ban breast-feeding, caffeine, and exercise!

Link to letter by William Saletan (of Slate)

Choice excerpts:

In particular, I commend the language of the draft, which would define abortion as "any of the various procedures—including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action—that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation."

To classify oral contraception as abortifacient, one would have to posit a scenario in which the drug fails to block ovulation, then fails to block fertilization, and yet somehow, having proved impotent at every other task, manages to prevent implantation.

Breast-feeding, like oral contraception, alters a woman's hormonal balance, thereby suppressing ovulation, fertilization, and, theoretically, implantation.

The evidence suggests that drinking 10 ounces of coffee per day could double the probability of miscarriage. Therefore, to avoid the theoretical abortifacient risk, employees must be guaranteed the right to refuse caffeinated beverages to any woman who appears to be of childbearing age.

Research published last year in a British journal of gynecology demonstrated that, as with caffeine, "exercise early in pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage." Again, to avoid abortifacient risk in women who are not yet pregnant, the draft regulation must guarantee the right to withhold any collaboration in exercise by women of childbearing age.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Women, Overwork, Borrowing

The linked article describes these are the three coping mechanisms that were used by American workers over the last 30 years - the wife entering the workplace, working more hours, and borrowing (credit cards, mortgages, home equity loans, etc.)

The author's prescription for improving the health of the economy are as follows:

The only way to keep the economy going over the long run is to increase the real earnings of middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans. The answer is not to protect jobs through trade protection -- that would only drive up the prices of everything purchased from abroad. Most routine jobs are being automated anyway. Nor is the answer to give tax breaks to the very wealthy and to giant corporations in the hope they will trickle down to everyone else. We've tried that, and it hasn't worked. Nothing has trickled down.

Rather, the long-term answer is for us to invest in the productivity of our working people -- enabling families to afford health insurance and have access to good schools and higher education -- while also rebuilding our infrastructure and investing in the clean energy technologies of the future. We must also adopt progressive taxes at the federal, state and local levels. In other words, we must rebuild the American economy from the bottom up. It cannot be rebuilt from the top down.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Furoshiki - Carrying stuff with a square of nylon or silk cloth

The cloth material appears to matter because it affects the strength of the knot, as well as ease of disassembling the knot.

A brief video showing some basic techniques

A web page showing more techniques

The wine bottle technique is pretty cool, if only because it is vastly better than the token paper bag approach used currently by grocery stores. A square of silk or nylon cloth is more packable than a single-purpose reusable shopping bag, you can tie it so it has handles, and if something spills or breaks, the cloth is washable.

This is the type of low-tech, low-cost, high-effectiveness solution that I like.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Efficient Investing

The second article uses the term "lazy", which was the original title of this post, but I prefer to think of it as efficient - efficient in time, money, and effort.

Link to "The best investment advice you'll never get"

One by one, some of the most revered names in investment theory were brought in to school a class of brilliant engineers, programmers, and cybergeeks on the fine art of personal investing...

Stanford University’s William (Bill) Sharpe, 1990 Nobel Laureate economist and professor emeritus of finance at the Graduate School of Business:
“Don’t try to beat the market,” he said. Put your savings into some indexed mutual funds, which will make you just as much money (if not more) at much less cost by following the market’s natural ebb and flow, and get on with building Google.

Burton Malkiel, formerly dean of the Yale School of Management and now a professor of economics at Princeton and author of the classic A Random Walk Down Wall Street:
Don’t try to beat the market, he said, and don’t believe anyone who tells you they can—not a stock broker, a friend with a hot stock tip, or a financial magazine article touting the latest mutual fund.

John Bogle, "Saint Jack", is the living scourge of Wall Street. Though a self-described archcapitalist and lifelong Republican, on the subject of brokers and financial advisers he sounds more like a seasoned Marxist:
Ignore them all and invest in an index fund. And it doesn’t have to be the Vanguard 500 Index, the indexed mutual fund that Bogle himself built into the largest in the world. Any passively managed index fund will do, because they’re all basically the same.

But the premise of indexing is that stock prices are generally an accurate reflection of a company’s worth at any given time, so there’s no point in trying to beat that price. The worth of a client’s investment goes up or down with the ebb and flow of the market, but the idea is that the market naturally tends to increase over time. Moreover, even if an index fund performed only as well as the expensively managed Merrill Lynch Large Cap mutual fund that was in my portfolio, I would earn more because of the lower fees.

Over the last 21 years, chief investment officer David Swensen has averaged a 16 percent annual return on Yale University’s investment portfolio, which he built with everything from venture capital funds to timber. “Invest in nonprofit index funds,” he says unequivocally. “Your odds of beating the market in an actively managed fund are less than 1 in 100.”

Link to "8 Lazy Portfolios"

What are Lazy Portfolios? Just simple, boring versions of a proven Nobel prizing-winning strategy: Well-diversified portfolios of no-load, low-cost index funds that require little balancing and no active trading, yet they're winners in bear and bull markets. And so easy, anyone can set them up.

The portfolio I like:
33% in VIPSX (Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities)
33% in VTSMX (Vanguard Total Stock Market Index)
33% in VGTSX (Vanguard Global Stock Market Index)

Alternative for VIPSX is Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (VBMFX).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Barefoot is better?

Link to Article

It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait, a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Yet, in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot." In other words: Feet good. Shoes bad.

Brennan brought his shoe to Clark, and after some modifications, they came up with a very flexible leather shoe with a three-millimeter sole made of rubber and puncture-resistant DuraTex that they call the Vivo Barefoot. "There are no gimmicks," Clark says. "It's a back-to-basics philosophy: that the great Lord designed us perfectly to walk around without shoes."

Epidemiologically speaking, it's been estimated that, by age 40, about 80 percent of the population has some muscular-skeletal foot or ankle problem. By age 50 to 55, that number can go up to 90 or 95 percent." Ninety-five percent of us will develop foot or ankle problems? Yeesh. Those are discouraging numbers—but wait. Are we talking about 95 percent of the world population, or of North America? "Those are American figures," he says. Which makes me think, North Americans have the most advanced shoes in the world, yet 90 percent of us still develop problems? We've long assumed this means we need better shoes. Maybe it means we don't need shoes at all.

Shoes that advertise the barefoot attitude
Nike Free
Vivo Barefoot
Vibram Fivefingers
Newton Running
Masai Barefoot Technology

Cheaper hacks
Aqua Shoes
Zinetic Pocket Slippers

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Office Worker Luxuries - or Necessities?

Link to CodingHorror Article

The article focuses on chairs, but Jeff Atwood has written other articles whose basic point is that office workers spend the majority of their time interacting with:
  1. Keyboard
  2. Mouse
  3. Monitor
  4. Chair
Those are the things to invest in, for a high-quality work environment.

I'm currently using (or in favor of):
  1. Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard
  2. Microsoft Natural Laser Mouse 6000 (work), Logitech MX510 (home)
  3. Dual monitors, at least 19"
  4. To be determined
Update: I recently changed from a Logitech MX500 at work to a Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000, in order to assess whether the angled wrist approach feels any better. This is also my first wireless mouse, so I'll have to balance whether the lack of cord outweighs the knowledge that I'm placing my hand on a wireless transmitter for multiple hours a day.

One option for #4 is the Ergohuman High-Back Mesh Chair which is around $520 at the time of posting. However, some reviewers have said that the unpadded front puts a lot of pressure on the legs, particularly when leaning forward. Perhaps the Herman Miller Mirra ($599 or $799) is actually a better choice?

Refurbished Office Chairs at ($75 shipping)

A related article comes from Joel Spolsky

The ergonomics experts always want you to have your feet flat on the floor. So you have to adjust your seat height first. Then, your arms are supposed to be horizontal while you're typing. This means you need an adjustable-height keyboard.

Most of the adjustable height keyboard trays are extremely annoying... they're floppy, flimsy, and limit the keyboard to one location. Therefore we decided to get desks where the entire worksurface can be raised and lowered.

Finally, a lot people praise the benefits of standing up for a part of the day, even if you spend the whole day at a computer, so we wanted desks where the worksurface could rise all the way to "counter height" so you could stand and work. And if you are going to be standing up and sitting down it's best to have a desk with a pushbutton, electric motor so you don't get lazy about doing it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Warren Buffett's 7 Secrets for Living a Happy and Simple Life

Link to Article

Each secret is followed by a quote from Warren Buffett.

1. Happiness comes from within.
In my adult business life I have never had to make a choice of trading between professional and personal. I tap-dance to work, and when I get there it’s tremendous fun.

2. Find happiness in simple pleasures.
I have simple pleasures. I play bridge online for 12 hours a week. Bill and I play, he’s “chalengr” and I’m “tbone”.

3. Live a simple life.
I just naturally want to do things that make sense. In my personal life too, I don’t care what other rich people are doing. I don’t want a 405 foot boat just because someone else has a 400 foot boat.

4. Think Simply.
“I want to be able to explain my mistakes. This means I do only the things I completely understand.”

5. Invest Simply.
The best way to own common stocks is through an index fund.

6. Have a mentor in life.
I was lucky to have the right heroes. Tell me who your heroes are and I’ll tell you how you’ll turn out to be. The qualities of the one you admire are the traits that you, with a little practice, can make your own, and that, if practiced, will become habit-forming.

7. Making money isn’t the backbone of our guiding purpose; making money is the by-product of our guiding purpose.
If you’re doing something you love, you’re more likely to put your all into it, and that generally equates to making money.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The End of Theory: The Data Deluge

Link to article

"All models are wrong, but some are useful."

So proclaimed statistician George Box 30 years ago, and he was right. But what choice did we have? Only models, from cosmological equations to theories of human behavior, seemed to be able to consistently, if imperfectly, explain the world around us. Until now. Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don't have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don't have to settle for models at all.

At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later. For instance, Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn't pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right.

Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise.

But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete. [Consider biology:] the models we were taught in school about "dominant" and "recessive" genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton's laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.

In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: "Correlation is enough." We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Link to Arstechnica's response

Correlations are a way of catching a scientist's attention, but the models and mechanisms that explain them are how we make the predictions that not only advance science, but generate practical applications. One only needs to look at a promising field that lacks a strong theoretical foundation—high-temperature superconductivity springs to mind—to see how badly the lack of a theory can impact progress.

Monday, June 23, 2008

In honor of George Carlin

That's all your house is — it's a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Now sometimes — sometimes you gotta move. You gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff. You've gotta move all your stuff, and maybe put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that — there's a whole industry based on keeping on eye on your stuff.

Something is wrong here: War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kinda (expletive) you'd expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Surprising quote from Einstein

In 1954, a year before his death, Einstein wrote a letter to Jewish philosopher Eric Gutkind that was sold at auction for $404,000.
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilized interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything "chosen" about them.

Link to article at

Home buying practices adjust to high gas prices

Link to Article

Stroud's choice represents a fundamental shift in the way more Americans are approaching home buying in this era of ballooning gas prices. Real estate agents, transportation officials and industry surveys indicate that home buyers are placing more importance on cutting their gas bills and commute times than they have since the oil shocks of the 1970s.

And there are some early indications that homes near urban centers, and subway, train and bus stops are often selling faster and at better prices than those in the distant suburbs.

Gas prices, which have shot up $1.07 this year, are magnifying demographic trends that show more younger buyers and empty-nest seniors are moving back to urban centers. If gas prices continue their ascent, this could have profound consequences over time on the future development of American cities and suburbs and modes of transportation.

Homes in cities and neighborhoods that require long commutes and don't provide enough public transportation alternatives are falling in value more quickly than more central locations, according to a May study by CEOs for Cities, a network of U.S. urban leaders.

Monday, June 16, 2008

How to Pack Everything You Own Into One Suitcase

Link to NPR article

Doug Dyment, whose Web site is devoted to the art of traveling light, says the key is to make a list in advance of what to pack and stick with it. He has developed a master list over the years that people can use as a starting point for creating their own.

"If it's not on your list, it shouldn't be in your bag," Dyment tells NPR's Michele Norris. "What happens with people is that they pack before their trip, and that packing activity consists mostly of talking to yourself and saying, 'Well I might need this and I might need that and what if the queen invites me to dinner?' And that's death to light packing."

Dyment advises people to think of what their lists look like well before a trip — literally writing it down and then checking off each item.

Dyment has two big tricks for packing a bag correctly: Don't let any space go unused, and wrap your clothes in bundles. "If you're packing a pair of running shoes, say, don't forget there's a lot of space inside those shoes that you can use to pack stuff," he says. When it comes to clothing, Dyment says travelers who fold items individually, put them in a stack and force them in the suitcase are making a huge mistake. Instead, he suggests using a technique called bundle
wrapping, because it keeps clothes from getting wrinkled and takes up less space.

"Never take more than two pairs of shoes," Dyment says. "In lots of business situations these days, you can buy shoes that are quite dressy looking and yet their internal construction is more like a high-quality running shoe."

Link to's checklist

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Guide to Creating a Minimalist Home

Photo from 30elm

Link to Article at

Executive summary
  • Definition of a minimalist home
    • Minimal furniture, clear surfaces (few knicknacks), accent decorations, quality over quantity
  • Benefits of a minimalist home
    • Less stressful, more appealing, easier to clean
  • How to create a minimalist home
    • One room at a time, start with furniture, only the essentials, clear floors, clear surfaces, clear walls, store stuff out of sight, declutter, simple artwork, simple decorations, plain window treatments, plain patterns, subdued colors, edit and eliminate, place for everything

How to Live With Just 100 Things Article

David Bruno's Blog (100 Things was his idea)

From David's blog:

My buddy Todd summed it up better than I could today when we were talking about it. He said, "Things are to be used. People are to be loved." The crazy thing about our consumer culture is that we so often reverse it. We use people to get the things we think we'll love. How stupid. As if fancy cars or more shoes are really going to satisfy us more than a great friend or a close relationship with our children.

Why am I doing the 100 Thing Challenge? Because I want to challenge stuff! I believe that run-away consumerism is making many of us narcissistic jackasses. It dulls our wits. Keeps us from thinking and acting like we understand what's really important. I'm planning on writing much more about this point. The main thing to remember now is that stuff is not passive. Stuff wants your time, attention, allegiance. But you know it as well as I do, life is more important than the things we accumulate. Challenge stuff!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Quotes from Orson Scott Card's Ender series

"So let me tell you what I think about gods. I think a real god is not going to be so scared or angry that he tries to keep other people down…A real god doesn't care about control. A real god already has control of everything that needs controlling. Real gods would want to teach you how to be just like them."
- Xenocide

So he believed. Believed, but the seed of doubt was there, and it stayed, and every now and then sent out a little root. It changed everything, to have that seed growing. It made [him] listen more
carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said. It made him wise.
- Ender's Game

He was commander every moment they were together. He never had to remind them of it; he simply was.
- Ender's Game

You can't rule out the impossible, because you never know which of your assumptions about what was possible might turn out, in the real universe, to be false.
- Ender's Shadow

For we humans do, when the cause is sufficient, spend our own lives. We throw ourselves onto the grenade to save our buddies in the foxhole. We rise out of the trenches and charge the enemy and die like maggots under a blowtorch. We strap bombs on our bodies and blow ourselves up in the midst of our enemies. We are, when the cause is sufficient, insane. He pretended all this time that humans were rational beings, when we are really the most terrible monsters these poor creatures could ever have conceived of in their nightmares. They had no way of knowing the story of blind Samson, who pulled down the temple on his own head to slay his enemies.
- Ender's Shadow

Is the Internet making us stupid?

Link to Article

The article says "Google", but the more accurate word is "Internet". The massive amount of information available via search, and the way that information on the web is broken into small chunks, is changing the way that we read, and therefore think.

Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

This is the man who wants to be our President?

Link to Article

Some of McCain’s acquaintances are less forgiving, however. They portray the politician as a self-centred womaniser who effectively abandoned his crippled wife to ‘play the field’. They accuse him of finally settling on Cindy, a former rodeo beauty queen, for financial reasons.

Ted Sampley, who fought with US Special Forces in Vietnam and is now a leading campaigner for veterans’ rights, said: ‘I have been following John McCain’s career for nearly 20 years. I know him personally. There is something wrong with this guy and let me tell you what it is – deceit.

‘When he came home and saw that Carol was not the beauty he left behind, he started running around on her almost right away. Everybody around him knew it.

‘Eventually he met Cindy and she was young and beautiful and very wealthy. At that point McCain just dumped Carol for something he thought was better.

‘This is a guy who makes such a big deal about his character. He has no character. He is a fake. If there was any character in that first marriage, it all belonged to Carol.’

Irony - When Pro-Life Women Get Abortions

Link to Article

I'm all for freedom of thought and respecting opinions other than my own. However, when people profess one opinion and behave in a diametrically opposite way, I find it difficult to take their opinions seriously.

How to Get Rid of Ants without Pesticides

Link to article

Four strategies:

1) Cornmeal (ants try to eat, can't digest, starve)
2) Vinegar (ants don't like the smell, temporary)
3) Boric acid (toxic to ants, safe for environment)
4) Boiling water on the nest (if you can find it)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Rational consumer behavior emerges at $4 per gallon

Link to Article in Washington Post

At $3 a gallon, Americans just grin and bear it, suck it up and, while complaining profusely, keep driving like crazy. At $4, it is a world transformed. Americans become rational creatures. Mass transit ridership is at a 50-year high. Driving is down 4 percent. (Any U.S. decline is something close to a miracle.) Hybrids and compacts are flying off the lots. SUV sales are in free fall.

At $4 a gallon, the fleet composition is changing spontaneously and overnight, not over the 13 years mandated by Congress. (Even Stalin had the modesty to restrict himself to five-year plans.) Just Tuesday, GM announced that it would shutter four SUV and truck plants, add a third shift to its compact and midsize sedan plants in Ohio and Michigan, and green-light for 2010 the Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid.

AutoNation CEO wants gas to stay above $4 per gallon

Link to Article

It's entirely possible that a decade from now, we'll realize that this was a pivotal moment in the auto industry's history. This could be the moment when a century of relying almost exclusively on petroleum to power personal mobility gives way to a new model, in which electricity powers our transportation.

A gaggle of small companies such as Norway's Think Global AS and Silicon Valley's Tesla Motors Inc. are all gearing up to expand the electric vehicle market if the big guys won't. But the excitement over projects like the Tesla Roadster can't compare to the significance of the shift in mindset among the people who run the world's biggest auto companies. This isn't a crowd given to green idealism, but they have come to the conclusion that remaining totally shackled to petroleum is bad for business and are re-gearing their future vehicle plans accordingly.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Quotes from the Dune series by Frank Herbert

The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.
  • Paul Atreides to the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
"What is the meaning of life?" People spend a lot of time and energy trying to answer that question. However, as Paul says, perhaps we're asking the wrong question. The outlook promulgated by the quote is similar to the Buddhist outlook, which emphasizes the importance of living in the present moment. Apparently, Eckhart Tolle's book "The Power of Now" promotes a similar worldview.

Muad'Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It's shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad'Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson.
  • from The Humanity of Muad'Dib by the Princess Irulan
I think a large part of the willingness to learn is the willingness to examine yourself - to evaluate one's own abilities, see where they can be improved, and take every available opportunity to do so. Perhaps those who do not believe they can learn are unwilling to truly see themselves and judge their strengths and weaknesses.

The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called "spannungsbogen" — which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.
  • from The Wisdom of Muad'Dib by the Princess Irulan
Good government never depends upon laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. The most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing leaders.
  • Law and Governance The Spacing Guild Manual
The same could be said of any organization - but the one that is most relevant to me is business. The corollary to the above statement could be that the next most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing the people to carry out the wishes of the leaders.

The difference between a good administrator and a bad one is about five heartbeats. Good administrators make immediate choices ... [that] usually can be made to work. A bad administrator, on the other hand, hesitates, diddles around, asks for committees, for research and reports. Eventually, he acts in ways which create serious problems ... A bad administrator is more concerned with reports than with decisions. He wants the hard record which he can display as an excuse for his errors ... [Good administrators] depend on verbal orders. They never lie about what they've done if their verbal orders cause problems, and they surround themselves with people able to act wisely on the basis of verbal orders. Often, the most important piece of information is that something has gone wrong. Bad administrators hide their mistakes until it's too late to make corrections ... One of the hardest things to find is people who actually make decisions.
  • God Emperor of Dune
There was a man who sat each day looking out through a narrow vertical opening where a single board had been removed from a wooden fence. Each day a wild ass of the desert passed outside the fence and across the narrow opening — first the nose, then the head, the forelegs, the long brown back, the hindlegs, and lastly the tail. One day the man leaped to his feet with a light of discovery in his eyes and he shouted for all who could hear him: "It is obvious! The nose causes the tail!"
  • Stories of the Hidden Wisdom from the Oral History of Rakis, Heretics of Dune
There is a great deal of emphasis on causality - if we see the effect B, what was the cause A that led to B? However, as the quote says, many causal relationships can be much better understood from a holistic sense as being part of the same event.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Skepticism, from Ender and Bean

Although Orson Scott Card's novels have raised some controversy, they contain some passages that have stuck with me and affected my own thinking.
Believed, but the seed of doubt was there, and it stayed, and every now and then sent out a little root. It changed everything to have that seed growing. It made Ender listen more carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said. It made him wise.
- Ender's Game, p. 111
The criminal misuse of time was pointing out the mistakes. Catching them - noticing them - that was essential. If you did not in your own mind distinguish between useful and erroneous information, then you were not learning at all, you were merely replacing ignorance with false belief, which was no improvement.
- Ender's Shadow, p. 87-88
Both quotes deal with the idea of critical thinking - examining information for its value before incorporating it into your own corpus of knowledge. I fear that critical thinking is increasingly devalued in our current society, and even those who wish to understand issues and ideas more deeply are overwhelmed by the glut of information that is available to us nowadays through television, radio, books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and (lest we forget) the people we talk to.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Efficiency of Fun: Skiing and Surfing

Skiing and surfing have been on my mind recently - along with the topic of efficiency. I'm more experienced with skiing, so I'll cover that first. Skiing is a lot of waiting, followed by a few minutes of fun, followed by a lot of waiting, etc. etc. The wait for the ski lift at your typical ski resort can be anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on how crowded the resort is. The ride up typically takes another 5-10 minutes. The run down, however, typically takes just a few minutes. From an efficiency point of view, this is not the greatest use of time. The "fun" to "waiting" ratio is relatively low. This analysis doesn't even take into account the time taken to drive or fly to and from the resort in question, gear up, and actually start skiing.

When looked at from this point of view, surfing is even worse. There is a lot of effort involved in finding a good surf spot, getting to the location, donning the wetsuit, and paddling out to the desired starting area. Once there, you try to stave off hypothermia and the nagging doubt that some form of aquatic life is going to sample portions of your anatomy while waiting for a good "set" of waves, then catch a wave and get a good 10-30 seconds of surfing, followed by the paddle back to the starting area. Depending on the locale, sets can last somewhere around 10 minutes, with approximately 30 minutes in between. Again, the "fun" to "waiting" ratio is relatively low.

However, some may say that the "waiting" isn't actually not "fun". If you're in line waiting for the ski lift with your ski partner(s) or riding the ski lift, it is a great opportunity to chat with them. Likewise, when you're sitting on your board waiting for the next set to roll in, a good conversation will help you keep your mind off the increasing number of extremities that you can't feel. Now that I think about it, the same goes for skiing, especially as the day wears on and the temperature starts to drop.