Friday, November 13, 2009

R Choropleth Challenge (color-shaded maps)

Link to the original FlowingData post

There are about a million ways to make a choropleth map. You know, the maps that color regions by some metric. The problem is that a lot of solutions require expensive software or have a high learning curve...or both. What if you just want a simple map without all the GIS stuff?

Oh my, that was fast! Less than 24 hours after the Choropleth Map Challenge was laid down, no fewer than 5 hackers responded with complete solutions for plotting the US unemployment data on a color-coded map, each in less than 20 lines of R code.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Future of Netflix

Netflix Everywhere: Sorry, Cable, You're History

The article starts with a story about Reed Hastings canceling a product just before launch (it was spun off and became the Roku player) and rapidly reinventing Netflix's strategy:

Rather than design its own product, it would embed its streaming-video service into existing devices: TVs, DVD players, game consoles, laptops, even smartphones. Netflix wouldn't be a hardware company; it would be a services firm.

The dream of routing around cable companies just may be in sight.

You'll never hear Hastings point that out, however. Unlike many in the tech world, he's a quiet disrupter, sabotaging business models silently and irretrievably.

So far, Hastings has avoided the wrath of the giants by building his Netflix service surreptitiously, slowly amassing his library of streaming content and giving viewers new ways to access it. And now, even if the cable and content companies do take him on, it may be too late. Hastings' Trojan horse—Netflix's software, embedded on myriad consumer devices—is already in place.

Data mining to the rescue! I love stories of how companies use existing data to generate new revenue or information for the company.

Sarandos asked his team to use their data-mining skills to help him find deals. While other video providers might ask studios for a sack full of sure things—new releases by big-name stars—Netflix's engineers could dig through their queue and review databases to find sleeper hits that its users actually wanted to watch but that studios might be willing to license for a pittance.

Still, the deal kicked off what Hastings hopes will be an unstoppable virtuous cycle. If Netflix can use the Starz offerings to sign up more subscribers, those subscription fees will generate more revenue. And with more revenue, Netflix can afford to pay more studios for rights to more films—which will draw in still more subscribers. And so on.

And this is a great mission statement from Reed Hastings:

"Today you love one out of three movies that you watch. If we can raise that to two out of three, we can completely transform the market and increase human happiness."

How to keep your mouth shut

As a rule, if you insist on speaking your mind, you will inevitably find yourself in an environment where everyone hates you. Most people can not handle the truth. And the more you shove it in their face, the easier it is for them to ignore you. You simply become the person who always complains, rendering any good ideas you have entirely impotent. Your ideas will be shot down simply because of the reputation of the mouth they come from.

The trick to keeping your mouth shut is to hold the desire to effect change above your desire to tell people how wrong and bad they are. The later almost never leads to the former.

No matter how right you are, if you care about effecting change, you should never open your mouth without some sense of who will agree with you and who won’t.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Leadership Video

From XPLANE and Harvard Business School, via Presentation Zen

Monday, September 14, 2009

"We are the glue holding ourselves together." article

I wouldn't say that the article itself is particularly well-written, but certainly the insights revealed by the study of the Framingham papers are quite interesting.

By studying Framingham as an interconnected network rather than a mass of individuals, Christakis and Fowler made a remarkable discovery: Obesity spread like a virus. Weight gain had a stunning infection rate. If one person became obese, the likelihood that his friend would follow suit increased by 171 percent. (This means that the network is far more predictive of obesity than the presence of genes associated with the condition.)

It has long been recognized, for instance, that the human capacity for close friendship is remarkably consistent. People from cultures throughout the world report between four and seven bosom buddies. "The properties of our social networks are byproducts of evolution," Christakis says. "The assumption has been that our mind can handle only so many other people."

After analyzing thousands of photos, the scientists found that, on average, each student had 6.6 close friends in their online network. In other words, nothing has really changed; even the most fervent Facebook users still maintain only a limited circle of intimates.

Because networks transmit the stuff of life—from happiness to HIV—evolution has generated a diversity of personality traits, which take advantage of different positions within the group. There are wallflowers and Wilt Chamberlains, shy geeks and "super-connectors." According to Christakis and Fowler, there is no single solution to the problem of other people. Individual variation is a crucial element of every stable community, from the Aborigines of Australia to the avatars of Second Life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Extrinsic Motivation - Destroys Creativity

A blog post at Presentation Zen points to a TED talk by Daniel Pink

He argues, based on decades of psychology research, that reward-based motivation only works for relatively simple, non-creative tasks. For complex tasks that require creativity, rewards reduce performance.

The solution:
  • Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.
  • Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Patient Needs versus Profit

Article by Atul Gawande at The New Yorker

When you look across the spectrum from Grand Junction to McAllen—and the almost threefold difference in the costs of care—you come to realize that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of American medicine. Somewhere in the United States at this moment, a patient with chest pain, or a tumor, or a cough is seeing a doctor. And the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue [emphasis added].

I found the Atul Gawande article from this article, which talks about the 3 key parts of the news that you usually don't get (historical context/big picture, sources of the information, what we don't know).

What Gawande did was to structure his search for truth as a quest narrative. Instead of hiding the details about how he comes by his information, he makes that the very focus. Along the way, he makes us apprentices in his quest for truth. We finish the article with a highly refined sense of how Gawande has acquired and verified the information he presents, as well as a framework for further inquiry of our own.

Back to Gawande's article, this is a great analogy and really hits home for me (pun was NOT deliberate):

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of co√∂rdination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A great analysis of recission

Article at Taunter Media

Half of the insured population uses virtually no health care at all. The 80th percentile uses only $3,000 (2002 dollars, adjust a bit up for today). You have to hit the 95th percentile to get anywhere interesting, and even there you have only $11,487 in costs. It's the 99th percentile, the people with over $35,000 of medical costs, who represent fully 22% of the entire nation's medical costs. These people have chronic, expensive conditions. They are, to use a technical term, sick.

An individual adult insurance plan is roughly $7,000 (varies dramatically by age and somewhat by sex and location).

It should be fairly clear that the people who do not file insurance claims do not face rescission. The insurance companies will happily deposit their checks. Indeed, even for someone in the 95th percentile, it doesn't make a lot of sense for the insurance company to take the nuclear option of blowing up the policy. $11,487 in claims is less than two years' premium; less than one if the individual has family coverage in the $12,000 price range. But that top one percent, the folks responsible for more than $35,000 of costs – sometimes far, far more – well there, ladies and gentlemen, is where the money comes in. Once an insurance company knows that Sally has breast cancer, it has already seen the goat; it knows it wants nothing to do with Sally.

If the top 5% is the absolute largest population for whom rescission would make sense, the probability of having your policy cancelled given that you have filed a claim is fully 10% (0.5% rescission/5.0% of the population). If you take the LA Times estimate that $300mm was saved by abrogating 20,000 policies in California ($15,000/policy), you are somewhere in the 15% zone, depending on the convexity of the top section of population. If, as I suspect, rescission is targeted toward the truly bankrupting cases – the top 1%, the folks with over $35,000 of annual claims who could never be profitable for the carrier – then the probability of having your policy torn up given a massively expensive condition is pushing 50%. One in two. You have three times better odds playing Russian Roulette.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Eric Wiener, on Rick Steve's show, as blogged by GetRichSlowly

There have been studies that show that people are materialistic — irrespective of how much money they actually have — people who are materialistic tend to be less happy than people who are not.

Close relationships are a better predictor of happiness than monetary wealth. “Happiness is other people,” Weiner says. “Our happiness is determined in large part by our quality and quantity of relationships with others.

Let’s talk about Denmark, for instance, because Denmark ranks consistently in the top three for happiest countries in the world. The Danes have low expectations. In survey after survey, they’re asked about expectations, and they have relatively low expectations. We Americans have very very high expectations. And I think that partly explains the discrepancy.

I think if you have low or moderate expectations, you’re less likely to be disappointed. You’re more likely to be satisfied or content. You’re more likely to be happy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Craftsmanship, not engineering

Post at Coding Horror, "Software Engineering: Dead?"

What DeMarco seems to be saying -- and, at least, what I am definitely saying -- is that control is ultimately illusory on software development projects. If you want to move your project forward, the only reliable way to do that is to cultivate a deep sense of software craftsmanship and professionalism around it.

The guys and gals who show up every day eager to hone their craft, who are passionate about building stuff that matters to them, and perhaps in some small way, to the rest of the world -- those are the people and projects that will ultimately succeed.

Everything else is just noise.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Statistics Resources

Cancer Genomics Tools from Washington University (WUSTL) includes a list of R functions that can be used for various statistical tests.

UCLA's Academic Technology Services department has a page with R links and information. In particular, they have a list of analyses and sample code.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dunbar's Number and Security

Post by Bruce Schneier on his blog, "Security, Group Size, and the Human Brain"

In a 1992 article, Dunbar used the correlation observed for non-human primates to predict a social group size for humans. Using a regression equation on data for 38 primate genera, Dunbar predicted a human "mean group size" of 148 (casually rounded to 150), a result he considered exploratory due to the large error measure (a 95% confidence interval of 100 to 230).

Several layers of natural human group size
3-5: Clique - people you would turn to in times of severe emotional distress
12-20: Sympathy group - people with whom you have special ties
30-50: Typical size of hunter-gatherer overnight camps
150: Approximate maximum number of co-workers
500: Megaband
1500: Tribe

Note: All of these numbers have very large confidence intervals.

These numbers (and particularly the ~150 number) are important because of their effects on organizational behavior.

Coherence can become a real problem once organizations get above about 150 in size. So as group sizes grow across these boundaries, they have more externally imposed infrastructure -- and more formalized security systems.

Small companies can get by without the internal forms, memos, and procedures that large companies require; when does what tend to appear?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Machine Learning Resources

Stanford University CS229 (Machine Learning) Materials
  • Andrew Ng's presentation - ML Advice
  • Problem: Overfitting (high variance)
    • Diagnostic: Training error is much lower than test error
    • Solution: Larger dataset, fewer features
  • Problem: Too few features (high bias)
    • Diagnostic: Training error is high
    • Solution: Larger set of features, different features

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Great analogies for wireless security

From a article
  • WEP is like a home bathroom lock, the one you can open just using a bent paperclip. Everyone knows how to unlock it, but when it's locked everyone who walks by understands they should stay out.
  • WPA is like a standard door lock; it's a lot more secure, but it is still possible to get by for someone with the right tools, knowledge, and circumstances.
  • WPA2 is like a bank safe. It may be possible to defeat, depending on how it's been set up, but it's not realistically possible for anybody to actually do so... yet.
  • Not broadcasting your SSID is like taking the numbers off of your house - The house is still there and everyone can see it, it's just a bit harder to find for people that don't know what they are looking for already.
  • Filtering by MAC address is like having a guard at the door that checks everyone's name against a list to see if they can enter. The only problem is, he doesn't ask for ID or remember what people look like, so anybody can and can listen in to see what names are allowed and then claim to be anybody else.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Facebook vs Google - Social vs Objective article titled Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network's Plan to Dominate the Internet

For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google's algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg's vision, users will query this "social graph" to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now.

How would you rather get information? An objectively defined "best"? Or a recommendation from a trusted friend? Are they truly mutually exclusive?

"Up until now all the advancements in technology have said information and data are the most important thing," says Dave Morin, Facebook's senior platform manager. "The most important thing to us is that there is a person sitting behind that keyboard. We think the Internet is about people."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Just Don't Look

Do I want to hear about the latest sob story on the nightly news?

Do I want to know what J. Lo or Brad Pitt or [insert celebrity of choice] is up to?

Do I care about the latest weight-loss approach? (Seriously, just burn more calories than you eat, or eat less calories than you burn - how hard is that?)

This post at Coding Horror, which references this post at, describes an approach to dealing with things/people that run on attention - Just Don't Look.

That's how you change the world. Not by arguing with people. Certainly not by screaming at them. You do it by ignoring them.

Monday, June 1, 2009

How to defuse a "Screw-Me" moment? (Hint - "Spin" is the wrong answer)

Blog post at Rands in Repose

Manage the room. Questions aren’t Screw-mes. You can clarify and stay on track. You know that Amanda is going to ask about hard data, right? Don’t let her take over the conversation. Say, “I’ve got your data in the appendix, but let me get through this first, ok?” Yeah, you just shut down a Senior VP. Nicely done. No way you can do that without serious confidence in your preparation. Yes, Tim?

Tim’s got the Screw-Me and you didn’t see it coming. Total left field. Completely valid strategic observation and you don’t have a clue how to answer. Shit.

You will recognize the Screw-Me by the complete silence that fills both the room and your head. That’s the realization everyone is having that you’re Screwed. First, let’s not make it worse…

Tim: “Rands, what about THIS?”

I’m a poker player and an experienced meeting surfer, so the room will not immediately know from the look on my face that This has Screwed me, but what I choose to do next will define my ongoing relationship with the room.

There are two options when you are cornered by This. Your animal brain, when cornered, will try to find a way out. You can taste this approach even before you begin. I am going to spin. I am going to talk quickly and confidently about This and I am going to hope that in my furious verbal scurrying they are going to believe I’ve got This handled.

That’s not what they’re seeing or hearing.

This is not your staff meeting where a little verbal soft shoe is going to entertain and delight. These are the execs and no matter how many meetings you’ve surfed, they see straight through spin, they know this dance, and the longer you sit there spinning, the longer you give your boss an opportunity to step in, try to make the diving save, and make you look like a blithering fool.

It takes a little practice to make the correct move when you feel the spin coming. You are going to do three things:
  1. Acknowledge the Screw-Me.
  2. Admit “I don’t know.”
  3. Concretely explain the steps you’re going to take to find out and give yourself a deadline.
You have completely defused Tim. See, Tim was pissed which is why he waited until precisely the wrong moment to throw down the Screw-Me. He wanted to see you spin and make a fool of yourself in front of your management team and what you did with the instant acknowledgement was crush emotion with structured sanity.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

3 Skills of Sexy Data Geeks

Blog post at Dataspora

Skill #1: Statistics (Studying). Statistics is perhaps the most important skill and the hardest to learn. It’s a deep and rigorous discipline, and one that is actively progressing (the widely used method of Least Angle Regression was only recently developed in 2004).

Skill #2: Data Munging (Suffering). The second critical skill mentioned above is “data munging.” Among data geek circles, this refers to the painful process of cleaning, parsing, and proofing one’s data before it’s suitable for analysis. Real world data is messy. At best it’s inconsistently delimited or packed into an unnecessarily complex XML schema. At worst, it’s a series of scraped HTML pages or a thoroughly undocumented fixed-width format.

Related to munging but certainly far less painful is the ability to retrieve, slice, and dice well-structured data from persistent data stores, using a combination of SQL, scripting languages (especially Python and its SciPy and NumPy libraries), and even several oldie-but-goodie Unix utilities (cut, join).

And when data sets grow too large to manage on a single desktop, the samurai of data geeks are capable of parallelizing storage and computation with tools like 96-nodes of Postgres, snow and RMPI, Hadoop and Mapreduce, and on Amazon EC2 to boot.

Skill #3: Visualization (Storytelling). This third and last skill that Professor Varian refers to is the easiest to believe one has. Most of us have had exposure to basic chart-making widgets of Excel. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: these software tools are often insufficient when faced with the visualization of large, multivariate data sets.

Here it’s worth making a distinction between two breeds of data visualizations, which differ in their audience and their goals. The first are exploratory data visualizations (as named by John Tukey), intended to faciliate a data analyst’s understanding of the data. These may consist of scatter plot matrices and histograms, where labels and colors are minimally set by default. Their goal is to help develop a hypothesis about the data, and their audience typically numbers one.

A second kind of data visualization are those intended to communicate to a wider audience, whose goal is to visually advocate for a hypothesis. While most data geeks are facile with exploratory graphics, the ability to create this second kind of visualization, these visual narratives, is again a separate skill — with separate tools.

The ability to visualize and communicate data is critical, because even with good data and rigorous statistical techniques, if the results of an analysis are poorly visualized, they will not convince: whether it’s an academic discovery or a business proposal.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rise of the Startups

My gut feeling has been that history is cyclical, generally speaking, and that true revolutionary change is highly unlikely in the long term. Little did I know that there is an incredible amount of information on this topic just a Google search away.

Wikipedia article on "Social cycle theory"

Anyways, the following excerpt from this article about the "new new economy" caught my attention:
As venture capitalist Paul Graham put it, "It turns out the rule 'large and disciplined organizations win' needs to have a qualification appended: 'at games that change slowly.' No one knew till change reached a sufficient speed."

The result is that the next new economy, the one rising from the ashes of this latest meltdown, will favor the small.
The article points out the recent decline of large corporations and points out their disadvantages in our current economy, while highlighting the strengths of small, nimble startups. The article also links to an article by Paul Graham, expanding on the whole "old versus new" debate.
But in the late twentieth century something changed. It turned out that economies of scale were not the only force at work. Particularly in technology, the increase in speed one could get from smaller groups started to trump the advantages of size.

Large organizations will start to do worse now, though, because for the first time in history they're no longer getting the best people. An ambitious kid graduating from college now doesn't want to work for a big company. They want to work for the hot startup that's rapidly growing into one. If they're really ambitious, they want to start it.
Reading that article led to another one, which talks about the declining importance of credentials and how startups are much more meritocratic - nobody cares where you went to school or who your parents are, all that matters is your performance.
History suggests that, all other things being equal, a society prospers in proportion to its ability to prevent parents from influencing their children's success directly. It's a fine thing for parents to help their children indirectly—for example, by helping them to become smarter or more disciplined, which then makes them more successful. The problem comes when parents use direct methods: when they are able to use their own wealth or power as a substitute for their children's qualities.

Large organizations can't do this. But a bunch of small organizations in a market can come close. A market takes every organization and keeps just the good ones. As organizations get smaller, this approaches taking every person and keeping just the good ones. So all other things being equal, a society consisting of more, smaller organizations will care less about credentials.

Googlenomics and Auctions article about Hal Varian, Google's Chief Economist

Varian believes that a new era is dawning for what you might call the datarati—and it's all about harnessing supply and demand. "What's ubiquitous and cheap?" Varian asks. "Data." And what is scarce? The analytic ability to utilize that data. As a result, he believes that the kind of technical person who once would have wound up working for a hedge fund on Wall Street will now work at a firm whose business hinges on making smart, daring choices—decisions based on surprising results gleaned from algorithmic spelunking and executed with the confidence that comes from really doing the math.

This is an example of a disruptive innovation - a gutsy move for Google, but one that ultimately paid off.

The problem with an all-at-once auction, however, was that advertisers might be inclined to lowball their bids to avoid the sucker's trap of paying a huge amount more than the guy just below them on the page. So the Googlers decided that the winner of each auction would pay the amount (plus a penny) of the bid from the advertiser with the next-highest offer. (If Joe bids $10, Alice bids $9, and Sue bids $6, Joe gets the top slot and pays $9.01. Alice gets the next slot for $6.01, and so on.) Since competitors didn't have to worry about costly overbidding errors, the paradoxical result was that it encouraged higher bids.

By turning over its sales process entirely to an auction-based system, the company could similarly upend the world of advertising, removing human guesswork from the equation.

The move was risky. Going ahead with the phaseout—nicknamed Premium Sunset—meant giving up campaigns that were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the unproven possibility that the auction process would generate even bigger sums. "We were going to erase a huge part of the company's revenue," says Tim Armstrong, then head of direct sales in the US. (This March, Armstrong left Google to become AOL's new chair and CEO.) "Ninety-nine percent of companies would have said, 'Hold on, don't make that change.' But we had Larry, Sergey, and Eric saying, 'Let's go for it.'"

The article asks if we can imagine using auctions in our everyday lives? Does this make our free market economy much more agile, responsive, and transparent? Take game consoles, for example. An auction-based system would very quickly determine the value of consoles, creating a true free market economy, rather than our current system of retail price management (RPM) agreements (sometimes called vertical price-fixing).

Google even uses auctions for internal operations, like allocating servers among its various business units. Since moving a product's storage and computation to a new data center is disruptive, engineers often put it off. "I suggested we run an auction similar to what the airlines do when they oversell a flight. They keep offering bigger vouchers until enough customers give up their seats," Varian says. "In our case, we offer more machines in exchange for moving to new servers. One group might do it for 50 new ones, another for 100, and another won't move unless we give them 300. So we give them to the lowest bidder—they get their extra capacity, and we get computation shifted to the new data center."

Let the Little Guys Drive (Disruptive Innovation)

Article at

If a domestic auto industry is to survive, it will have to incorporate and encourage breakthroughs from outsiders like Transonic. Automakers will need to transition from a vertical, proprietary, hierarchical model to an open, modular, collaborative one, becoming central nodes in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In other words, the industry will need to undergo much the same wrenching transformation that the US computer business did some three decades ago, when the minicomputer gave way to the personal computer. Whereas minicomputers were restricted to using mainly software and hardware from their makers, PCs used interchangeable elements that could be designed, manufactured, and installed by third parties. Opening the gates to outsiders unleashed a flood of innovation that gave rise to firms like Microsoft, Dell, and Oracle. It destroyed many of the old computer giants—but guaranteed a generation of American leadership in a critical sector of the world economy. It is late in the day, but the same could still happen in the car industry; it just has to harness our national entrepreneurial spirit to develop the next wave of auto breakthroughs.

By seeking to match the likes of Toyota, Detroit has been trying to come from behind in a game where its adversaries set the rules. To Klepper, the Carnegie Mellon economist, the Big Three today resemble the American television-receiver industry in the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered by US corporations that, after decades of domination, were suddenly confronted by foreign innovation. Companies like RCA and Zenith were slow to incorporate new technologies until it was too late; all exited or sold out to foreign firms. "Every time American companies catch up to the competition," Klepper says, "the competition already has moved on and instituted new things. In that situation, it's extremely difficult to get ahead."

The only escape from this conundrum is to pursue what Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has called disruptive innovation—the kind of change that alters the trajectory of an industry. As Christensen argued in his 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma, successful companies in mature industries rarely embrace disruptive innovation because, by definition, it threatens their business models. Loath to revamp factories at high cost to make products that will compete with their own goods, companies drag their feet; perversely, financial markets often reward them for their shortsightedness. Good as they are, the European and Japanese automakers are established companies. At this point, they are as unlikely to pursue disruptive innovation as Detroit has been. That gives the US auto industry an opening. To take that opportunity, it will have to behave differently—it will have to step far outside the walls of the Rouge.

I very strongly believe in the idea of disruptive innovation. Other innovations that I consider disruptive are "netbooks" and casual gaming (i.e. PopCap Games). Getting sucked into a never-ending cycle of competition between established companies encourages incremental improvements, is reactionary, and ultimately drags down all players involved. Much better to break free and create a new paradigm/product.

An interview with Tina Seelig

Posted by Guy Kawasaki at the OPEN Forum

Some excerpts I liked:

Question: What is the secret to successful negotiation?
Answer: Make sure that you understand the other person’s point of view. If you make assumptions, you will very likely be wrong. When I bought a car for my son. I assumed that the salesperson wanted us to pay the highest price. That wasn’t the case! After asking a bunch of questions, I learned that his commission wasn’t based on the price of the car—it was based on the scores he got on the customer evaluation form we filled out afterward. Of course, I was happy to give him a great score in return for a great price. This is how win-win negotiations come about.

Question: How does one balance work and “life”?
Answer: You copied a quote from my book into one of your recent blogs. That quote, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, is very powerful.
“The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009


via Seth Godin's solicitation for updates to Purple Cow

Two things are guaranteed at the remarkable DinTaiFung restaurant in Taipei: the extremely long line outside and the size/weight of their world famous steamed juicy pork dumplings. Each dumpling uses only the freshest ingredients, weighs a precise 0.74 oz, and has exactly 18 folds. In 1993, NY Times named DinTaiFung as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Even with many outlets worldwide today, thousands of tourists still visit Taipei every year just to eat at its original location. One of the stories told about the restaurant owner is that he takes the tour buses to hear what people say about his restaurant. One day, he found that bus stopped before reaching its destination and tourists were encouraged to use the restrooms so that they can avoid using the ones at his restaurant. He went back and installed the most advanced toilets available in the restrooms and made sure that they were cleaned every 15 minutes. Since then, the restrooms at DinTaiFung also became one of the most talked about topics for tourists.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Traits of successful CEOs

Op-ed column at the New York Times

They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.

These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades. In 2001, Jim Collins published a best-selling study called “Good to Great.” He found that the best C.E.O.’s were not the flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again.

That same year Murray Barrick, Michael Mount and Timothy Judge surveyed a century’s worth of research into business leadership. They, too, found that extroversion, agreeableness and openness to new experience did not correlate well with C.E.O. success. Instead, what mattered was emotional stability and, most of all, conscientiousness — which means being dependable, making plans and following through on them.

The C.E.O.’s that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Two Buck Chuck

CNN article about Fred Franzia, CEO of Bronco Wine

...the CEO of Bronco Wine, the nation's fourth-largest wine company, tells me repeatedly that only a sucker would pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine - including his own $35 Domaine Napa. And that Napa's and Bordeaux's claims about their special soils are bogus: "We can grow on asphalt. Terroir don't mean sh*t."

In 2002, Franzia persuaded Trader Joe's to sell a low-end label called Charles Shaw (after the winemaker who sold the tony label to Franzia, and dubbed Two Buck Chuck by consumers) that waged war on domestic wines in the $4 to $10 range - and was named best chardonnay in a blind taste test at July's California State Fair over far pricier competition. The label is one of America's fastest-growing, selling 5 million cases per year, all through one chain of stores.

"There's not a doubt in my mind that the two biggest things that have happened to the wine industry in the last 10 years are the movie Sideways and Two Buck Chuck," says Gary Vaynerchuk, who reviews wines on his popular video blog,

While he expects a lot, Franzia is known for listening to his employees, even if he has to berate them into talking. "The thing we do better than anyone is we listen," Franzia says. And despite Bronco's size, he's still willing to take big risks.

As we speak, enormous swaths of his fields are being ripped up to switch from cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines to pinot noir and pinot grigio, which Franzia expects to be big sellers because they're easy to drink.

"Success is easy if you think of it like rust: It's inevitable if you keep at it. You look for magic moments, but they're not there," Franzia says. "Guys can claim they are, but that's bullshit."


Interview with Matthew Mays by Guy Kawasaki

Question: How do you define elegance?
Answer: Something is elegant if it is two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful... At first glance, elegant things seem to be missing something.

Question: Which companies are your favorite examples or elegance?
Answer: Toyota is one. With Scion, they refused to advertise, and they drastically reduced the number of standard features to allow Generation-Y buyers to make a personal statement by customizing their cars. The Scion xB flew off the lot when it came out.Another example is the British bank, First Direct. It is branchless and became the most highly recommended bank in the United Kingdom. Then there’s the French manufacturing company FAVI that realized better employee relations when they eliminated their human resources department. W. L. Gore and Associates completely eliminated job titles and typical corporate hierarchy in order to release the creativity of its staff employees. And finally there’s always the usual suspects like the Google interface and Apple’s clean design. But my all-time favorite is In ‘N Out Burger. a freakishly popular hamburger chain that started in Los Angeles a half century ago, that has built its brand on the "less is more" approach with an interesting twist. The menu offers only five items: a hamburger, cheeseburger, double burger, French fries, and a short list of beverages. By keeping things simple, founder Harry Snyder says he is able to provide the highest quality food in a sparkling clean environment.

Question: What’s the first step a CEO should take to get her company on the right track?
Answer: ...Steve Jobs revealed that a "stop-doing" strategy figured centrally into Apple’s approach. What he said was: "We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done." That’s the mindset. And step one? Create a solid stop-doing list. Sounds simple, but few do it. Guru Jim Collins says you absolutely must have a "stop-doing" list to accompany your to-do list. As a practical matter, he advises developing a strong discipline around first giving careful thought to prioritizing goals and objectives, and then eliminating the bottom 20 percent of the list. If as CEO you do that, and demand that everyone do that, including designers and engineers with respect to the stuff they’re building, your ugly crap quotient goes way down.

Question: Why do you think the Japanese have such a way with elegance?
Answer: [First is Zen, and one of the fundamental Zen aesthetic themes is emptiness, and second] ...kaizen — continuous improvement. It means "no best, only better."... To stop improving was to stagnate—which was to die. It was a war on all the things that make for crap: overproduction, overprocessing, defects, conveyance, unneccessary motion, inconsistency, and inventory. In short, Japan HAD to get elegant. They’ve never forgotten how they did it, and they’ve institutionalized it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

No utility, high price due to artificial scarcity

Article in the New York Times

Russia quietly passed a milestone this year: surpassing De Beers as the world’s largest diamond producer.

Quote from Aleksandr A. Malinin, an adviser to the president of Alrosa (Russia's largest diamond producer [97% of domestic rough diamond production]).

But what we are doing is selling an illusion,” meaning a product with no utility and a price that depends on the continued sense of scarcity where there is none.

“If you don’t support the price,” Andrei V. Polyakov, a spokesman for Alrosa, said, “a diamond becomes a mere piece of carbon.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Escaping the Cubicle Nation

An interview with Pamela Slim

Question: How do you decide which business to start?

Answer: Business ideas are a dime a dozen. From my perspective, which is firmly rooted in the idea that the purpose of a business is to allow you to live the kind of life that makes you happy, healthy, wise, and wealthy—or at least well-fed, a good business idea has four components. First, it is rooted in something you are passionate about and which energizes you. Entrepreneurship is too darn hard to manufacture enthusiasm. Second, you have the skill and competence to make it happen—or at least a really great contact list of smart and enthusiastic friends to help you figure it out. Third, you need to do enough business planning to know whom you are trying to serve, and how you are going to make money. Finally, you want a business model that you have the resources to support and that delivers the life you want to live.

Question: What is the most common mistake the “escapees” make?

Answer: The most common mistake is thinking that they have to get all their plans absolutely perfect before launching. I have listened to people explain why they spent two months crafting an introductory email to a potential client. Perfectionism will cripple your business and thwart your plans faster than anything. Get used to pushing things out that feel not quite ready and then be completely responsive to fix them as you go. There will never be a perfect product, service, market or economy, so the most passionate, enthusiastic and responsive entrepreneur will win.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The greatest mathematical discovery - compound interest

Applied, in this case, to start-ups.

Article at ReadWriteWeb

While I thought the discussion of compound interest was interesting, I think the following excerpt is useful for entrepreneurs

Typical Thinking
"I've got an idea that no one has ever thought of. I'd better not tell anyone because as soon as I launch it, everyone will copy me. I'll develop it in secret, and then when my vision is ready, I'll launch it with great gusto and have a big sales and marketing campaign ready to go to snap up customers, who are all going to flock to me."

Typical Reality
You've got an idea that 100 people have had, 10 have already started working on, and probably a few have failed at. If you don't tell anyone or are so excited that you don't do your research, you won't find out about the 10 who have started working on it. You also don't invite 100 experienced people to help you refine your product, all of whom are far too busy to steal your idea anyway. You develop it in secret, and then 30 seconds after you finally launch, 50 people tell you about little things that are broken or need tweeking (a "tweek" being any change that you think will take two hours but ends up taking two weeks: tw(o) (w)eeks, get it?). You spend the next 6 months scrambling to get the product up to scratch. Customers don't come flocking. They come dribbling in like glue-covered sloths, whinging about every little thing you've missed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Interior Design Websites

I'm removing these from my Google Reader, but wanted to keep the links for when we move to our next place:

Design Sponge
Apartment Therapy LA

Most Dangerous People in Your World

Post by John Goekler on Counterpunch
All statistics are in deaths per year in the US, based on statistics available in 2009
  1. Yourself - between half a million and a million deaths due to "lifestyle disease" (smoking, lousy diets, lack of exercise, etc.)
  2. A doctor - ~200,000 deaths due to medical errors
  3. A coworker with an infection - ~75,000 deaths from diseases like flu or pneumonia
  4. "Toxic agents" - ~55,000 deaths due to asbestos, lead, pesticides, household chemicals
  5. Other drivers - ~42,000 deaths
The list continues, but notice that terrorists, lightning strikes, sharks, spiders, and other common fears are not on this list.

Found via Bruce Schneir's Crypto-Gram

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Power of a Sketch

Dan Roam describes the napkin sketch that inspired supply-side economics

Wikipedia article on the Laffer curve. One key sentence: Many economists have questioned the utility of the Laffer Curve in public discourse.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sprint Commercial - The Now Network

As much as I normally dislike commercials and feel that their impact should be minimized (by not watching cable or broadcast TV, using some level of ad-blocking, using a RSS reader instead of browing the Web), I'll stay go out of my while to highlight interesting and well-made ads such as this one.

Doing the "Impossible"

Post at

People react to being told “it’s not possible” in a variety of ways, and not all those ways are productive. To get around the brick walls which large corporations, bureaucracies and other social organisms put in our way, it is important to:
  1. Calm down, smile and remain polite to maintain any chance of success
  2. Become a human being rather than a faceless number
  3. Be persistent to grind away the brick wall
  4. Be prepared to lose, to expand your freedom of thought and action
  5. Be clear about your objective so you can be flexible about how to achieve it
  6. Find who can, since often the first person you speak to cannot help
  7. Take an active part in making things happen more efficiently
  8. Make the other person feel good about helping you so that they are more likely to help you
  9. Don’t relax this stance until it’s over, it’s easy to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
I am particularly struck by the first suggestion:

You cannot win this kind of battle through anger. The very first thing to do is to observe that you are angry, and calm yourself down. Acknowledge your anger, and put it aside for later. There’ll be plenty of time for cursing the system that put these problems in your way later, after you’ve removed these obstacles. The surest way to guarantee that you won’t get your way is to get angry. Angry people are always wrong, and they’re rarely worth helping or cooperating with.

And the eighth:

It is much more effective to present the situation in such a way that the person who can help you will feel that they are doing something Good by helping you.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Prevent Selection for Resistance By Targeting Post-Reproductive Individuals

The article at ScienceDaily describes an "evolution-proof" insecticide, targeting malaria. The idea works in this case because it is the older mosquitos that transmit malaria, AND they have already reproduced. Therefore, any insecticide that kills them does not apply selective pressure and the spread of resistance is significantly slowed, or even stopped.

Link to the actual paper at PLoS Biology

I particularly like this quote:
Consequently, there is now a concerted effort to identify new insecticidal compounds for use in malaria control [36,39]. On the face of it, this is desirable, but novel chemistry does not, in itself, provide a sustainable answer. All existing insecticides were “new” at some point, and there is the very real danger that, as with the antimalarial drug treadmill [40], the search for products can become open ended as the efficacy of successful new compounds is, in turn, eroded by the evolution of resistance.
If you're stuck in an evolutionary arms race, the best way to win is to get out of the race with a revolutionary strategy.

The article mentions several other diseases that might benefit from this approach:
... it may be applicable to others with extrinsic incubation periods that approach the life spans of their vectors. Such diseases may include dengue, filariasis, West Nile virus, Japanese encephalitis, onchocercaisis, and Chagas disease.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anti-carpal tunnel exercises

Video is by a professional percussionist, but applies to desk jockeys as well.

Better Board Games - German? article, "Monopoly Killer: Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre

Germans, it turns out, are absolutely nuts about board games. More are sold per capita in Germany than anywhere else on earth. Any game aficionado will tell you that the best-designed titles in the world come from this country. In fact, the phrase German-style game is now shorthand for a breed of tight, well-designed games that resemble Monopoly the way a Porsche 911 resembles a Chevy Cobalt.

Since its introduction, The Settlers of Catan has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has been translated into 30 languages and sold a staggering 15 million copies (even the megahit videogame Halo 3 has sold only a little more than half that).

Yet in the US, only a few types of games have really taken off. There are so-called lifestyle games, like Scrabble and chess, intellectual skill-based games whose devotees are interested in playing little else; party games like Trivial Pursuit and Jenga; and traditional strategy games like Risk and Monopoly, which are generally seen as child's play or possibly something to do while trapped in a snowstorm without power—just before you eat your own foot.

Monopoly, in fact, is a classic example of what economists call a zero-sum game. For me to gain $100, you have to lose $100. For me to win, you have to be bankrupt. Gouging and exploiting may be perfect for humiliating your siblings, but they're not so great for relaxing with friends.

Monopoly also fails with many adults because it requires almost no strategy. The only meaningful question in the game is: To buy or not to buy? Most of its interminable three- to four-hour average playing time (length being another maddening trait) is spent waiting for other players to roll the dice, move their pieces, build hotels, and collect rent. Board game enthusiasts disparagingly call this a "roll your dice, move your mice" format.

Instead of direct conflict, German-style games tend to let players win without having to undercut or destroy their friends. This keeps the game fun, even for those who eventually fall behind. Designed with busy parents in mind, German games also tend to be fast, requiring anywhere from 15 minutes to a little more than an hour to complete. They are balanced, preventing one person from running away with the game while the others painfully play out their eventual defeat. And the best ones stay fresh and interesting game after game.

The games that stand the test of time have just a few rules and practically unlimited possibilities, making them easy to learn and difficult to master.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Military Sci-Fi

Post at io9

Read already
Plan to read

Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein
Cobra Trilogy, Timothy Zahn
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
Old Man's War, John Scalzi
Armor, John Steakley
Broken Angels, Richard K. Morgan
Wess'Har Wars, Karen Traviss
Vatta's War Cycle, Elizabeth Moon
Probability Moon, Nancy Kress

Recommended by commenters
Lost Fleet series, Jack Campbell
Hammer's Slammers, David Drake
Dorsai!, Gordon Dickson
Bolo series, Keith Laumer
Honor Harrington, David Weber
Sten, Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The cable company doesn't charge you $10,000 for the box

Seat-based software licensing has to stop

As I told a colleague at CMS Watch, the cable company (very wisely) does not charge you $10,000 for a cable box. Instead, they give you the cable box (and even install it for free, on site). Then they charge you a nominal monthly fee (if $100 a month, plus or minus $60, can be called nominal) for content. After 8 years, you've paid the cable company $10,000. But you've paid them in a manner that's acceptable to you. And in the meantime, you're free to switch to something else, or cancel.

IMHO, the way to price enterprise software going forward is to charge a monthly subscription fee for support. That's right: give away the software for free. Charge only for support. And maybe charge something here and there for high-value specialty add-ons (your connector-du-jour), but mainly for support. To account for scalability, maybe set fees on a per-server or per-installed-instance basis (but certainly not on a per-CPU or per-core basis). Install an instance of XYZ CMS on one box, pay one monthly fee. That's how it should be.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Start-ups = Shortwave radio

Start-up Static, a post by Joel Sposky at

The problem is that trying to copy one company's model is a fool's errand. It's hard to figure out which part of the Starbucks formula made the business a smash hit while so many of its rivals failed. In investing, the phenomenon of looking too closely at success and not at all at failure is known as survivorship bias.

Jessica Livingston, co-founder of Y Combinator - Startups... "all fail for the same reason: People just stop working on their business." Um, yeah, well, sure, and most people die because their heart stops beating.

Paul Graham, Jessica's husband and partner in Y Combinator, has tackled this subject on his website. "The biggest reason founders stop working on their start-ups is that they get demoralized," he writes. "Some people seem to have unlimited self-generated morale. These almost always succeed. At the other extreme, there are people who seem to have no ability to do this; they need a boss to motivate them. In the middle there is a large band of people who have some, but not unlimited, ability to motivate themselves. These can succeed through careful morale management (and some luck)."

Joel Spolsky then goes through a great analogy:

In my mind, an entrepreneur is like a kid playing with his first shortwave radio. He takes it home and turns it on, and what does he hear?
Nothing. Static.
This might be demoralizing. So he tries a different frequency.
Nothing. Static.
Meanwhile, the determined founder will start playing with the dials -- rethinking the menu, trying new promotions, and adjusting prices. And what he'll find is that, just like the tuner on a radio, certain aspects of a business can be off by only a little bit and then, one tiny adjustment, and BING! The thing starts working.

Note: The analogy works much better when you read the whole thing.

Daily Routine, versus Splurges

Post on The Simple Dollar - Splurges, Habits and Projection

Which scenario sounds more appealing?
About two mornings a month, I take my laptop to a local coffee shop that I adore, pick up a tasty morning treat and a cup of coffee, and sit here in this pleasant environment writing for a few hours.

I make a daily stop at a coffee shop for breakfast. I sit in there each and every morning, drop $7 on a breakfast sandwich, a cup of coffee, and a paper, and read it without much real joy.
A splurge is healthy every once in a while. It’s an irregular expense - not one that you spend money on every day or even every week. It also fills you with joy when you do it - and you still feel happy about it a day later. In short, you derive quality of life from that purchase.

A habit is never healthy. When an experience (particularly one tied to spending) becomes routine and normal, it should either fulfill a basic need in a simple way or it should be reconsidered. If it doesn’t add genuine value to your life - or if there’s a cheaper option that could add the same value - then you shouldn’t be spending your hard-earned money on it.

Take some time and really look at the things you spend money on regularly. Are these things really bringing you happiness - or are they tired routines centered around something you can’t really recapture? You might be shocked to realize how many of your spending choices are really dictated not by your true wants and needs, but by the wants and needs you’ve projected onto those purchases.

Command-Control vs Respond-Embrace-Own

Post by Zane Safrit on AmEx OPEN FORUM

Respond-Embrace-and-Own Economy Drives It.

Once upon a time, in an economy not too long ago, life was simple. And in that simple time, smart executives at companies issued simple commands to employees and customers. And the commands were clear and simple and good. Employees followed these commands and built products and services and global brands around them. Consumers came to trust the brands with confidence and comfort they experienced.

The command and control economy is no longer possible. There are too many tools, too many media outlets and too many conversations for a brand and its management to effectively command and control. Commanding and controlling it is as effective as commanding and controlling the shape of a water-balloon. Squeeze it here. . . and it squirts out over there. Squeeze it tighter and the balloon, your brand, is gone, leaving a mess to clean up.

What about those brands that understand this change and how it impacts their brand? IBM’s embrace of the Linuz engineer community is an excellent example of a brand’s success in our Respond-and-Own economy. IBM reached out to the tens of thousands of engineers and the open-source evangelists for the Linux operating system. Now, those tens of thousands of engineers and their passion for Linux drive IBM’s growth. And IBM’s embrace of Linux and its engineers drive theirs. They responded to the changes in their industry. They embraced the evangelists for this change. And their brands are bigger as a result. Bringing in each other under their tents, Linux under IBM’s and IBM under Linux’s tent, only served to make their tents bigger, stronger, more unflappable.

More companies will find their foundation of command-and-control is crumbling or disappeared. The question is will they react or respond? Will they react with commands to control their brand. Will they fight to retain ownership of their crumbling building resting on an imploding foundation. Or will they respond and invite the millions of micro-media sites, consumers and employees, to share in building and owning their brand?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Animated Infographics

Amazingly dense in terms of information imparted per second.

Little Red Riding Hood

Slagsmålsklubben - Sponsored by destiny from Tomas Nilsson on Vimeo.

inspired by Royksopp - Remind Me
(Sorry - unable to embed, per poster's request)

Friday, March 20, 2009

You and Your Research - Richard Hamming

Yes, THAT Richard Hamming
Bell Communications Research Colloquim Seminar, 3/17/1986

This talk centered on Hamming's observations and research on the question ``Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?''

This is an extremely edited list of excerpt - my original list of excerpts would have been 10 times longer. If you are at all interested by any of the excerpts below, I would highly recommend reading the entire transcript.

Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live.

And I will cite Pasteur who said, 'Luck favors the prepared mind.'

...often the great scientists, by turning the problem around a bit, changed a defect to an asset.

'Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest.

You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it, so they will indeed say, 'Yes, I've stood on so and so's shoulders and I saw further.'

'It is a poor workman who blames his tools - the good man gets on with the job, given what he's got, and gets the best answer he can.'

If you chose to assert your ego in any number of ways, 'I am going to do it my way,' you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.

Amusement, yes, anger, no. Anger is misdirected. You should follow and cooperate rather than struggle against the system all the time.

If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? can be a nice guy or you can be a great scientist.

If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one.

If you want to be a great researcher, you won't make it being president of the company... When your vision of what you want to do is what you can do single-handedly, then you should pursue it. The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management. And the bigger the vision is, the farther in management you have to go.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Status Check: Religion in America

Article from Times Online

Americans are losing faith, though; and those who have it are moving out of established churches. The nonreligious are now the third biggest grouping in the US, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the just-released American Religious Identification Survey. The bulk of this shift occurred in the 1990s, when they jumped from 8% to 14% of the population – but they have consolidated in the past decade to 15%.

In many ways the most interesting dynamic is that between mega-church, politicised evangelicalism and atheism. Mega-churches have emerged in many suburban neighbourhoods in America and serve as community centres, as social-work hubs and as venues for what most outsiders would think of as stadium-style Sunday rock shows, in which religion looks like a form of fandom. Charismatic preachers – like the now disgraced Ted Haggard or the politically powerful Rick Warren – have built massive congregations... In 20 years, the number of Americans finding identity and God in these places has soared from 200,000 to more than 8m... This is not, one hastens to add, an intellectual form of faith. It is a highly emotional and spontaneous variety of American Protestantism and theologically a blend of self-help, biblical literalism and Republican politics.

As one evangelical noted in The Christian Science Monitor last week, “being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence”.

What one yearns for is ... at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility. And atheists, if this continues much longer, will continue to pick up that slack.

Goals, Action, Happiness

A guest post by Albert of UrbanMonk.Net on ZenHabits

The Internal Goal

But why do I mention happiness and success in the same breath? The true goal behind what we pursue is often internal – and most of the time, this internal goal is simply to be happy. If you don’t believe me, try something simple: Look at a current external goal you have, and then begin to trace it down.

Turning Our Goals Around

And then what? Once we see our internal goals, try one thing. Turn the goals around – achieve the internal goals first. And if, after that, you still want the external goal, you’ll find it that much easier.

This road becomes easier to tread when we realize that internal goals are always achievable if we put in the time and effort. External goals can be subject to limitations that cannot be overcome, no matter how hard we try. It would be almost impossible for a sickly fifty year old to become a professional boxer, for instance. But if the man’s true, internal, goal was to build confidence, it does not matter how frail or old he is – it is always possible.

The Impermanency of Purpose

This becomes more important when we realize outer purposes are ultimately impermanent. Our external purpose changes to reflect our inner. Purposes are not permanent. Nothing is. Stop looking for something to do for the rest of your life – it might be possible to find something that lasts forever; but most likely it will simply change in accordance with your internal state and needs.

Deeply realizing that goals are impermanent will also contribute to our inner peace. Here is one to stimulate thought – if you are seeking fulfillment through your external purpose, what happens when it comes to an end? It is certainly admirable to aim to be the best parent you can be, for example, but what will happen when one day your children become old enough to leave the house? When that happens, one can cling to the purpose, resist, and suffer. Or one can simply let it go, and continue in peace.

The Need for Action

Naturally, there is a time for planning and thinking, but there is also a time for action. Many people who are seeking or rethinking their life purpose stay stuck in the introspection. Maybe they do this to avoid taking risks, for fear of leaving their comfort zone, to avoid disapproval, or any other fear. And in doing so, they remain stuck in a rut.

Sometimes, the best way to find a purpose in life is to go out there and take action, even if we don’t know what we are doing!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Simple, and Creative

And to steal a word from Mike Rowe's TED talk, peripeteia

For reference, the other word he uses is anagnorisis

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Technical Debt

CodingHorror blog post

Technical Debt is a wonderful metaphor developed by Ward Cunningham to help us think about this problem. In this metaphor, doing things the quick and dirty way sets us up with a technical debt, which is similar to a financial debt. Like a financial debt, the technical debt incurs interest payments, which come in the form of the extra effort that we have to do in future development because of the quick and dirty design choice. We can choose to continue paying the interest, or we can pay down the principal by refactoring the quick and dirty design into the better design. Although it costs to pay down the principal, we gain by reduced interest payments in the future.

The metaphor also explains why it may be sensible to do the quick and dirty approach. Just as a business incurs some debt to take advantage of a market opportunity developers may incur technical debt to hit an important deadline. The all too common problem is that development organizations let their debt get out of control and spend most of their future development effort paying crippling interest payments.

Serious bonus points for including a quote from Dune, by Frank Herbert
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Monomyth - Joseph Campbell

Also commonly known as "The Hero's Journey".
  • Departure (or Separation)
    1. The Call to Adventure
    2. Refusal of the Call
    3. Supernatural Aid
    4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
    5. Belly of the Whale (Trials)
  • Initiation
    1. The Road of Trials
    2. Mother as Goddess
    3. Woman as Temptress
    4. Atonement with the Father
    5. Apotheosis
    6. The Ultimate Boon
  • Return
    1. Refusal of the Return
    2. The Magic Flight
    3. Rescue from Without
    4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
    5. Master of Two Worlds
    6. Freedom to Live
Wikipedia article on Monomyth
Website that analyzes movies using Monomyth framework

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Statistics = Sexy? What about transparency?

Yes, according to Hal Varian, Chief Economist of Google as of 2/25/2009
He also mentions transparency, something alluded to in this article regarding reform of the financial industry

I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer engineers would’ve been the sexy job of the 1990s? The ability to take data—to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades, not only at the professional level but even at the educational level for elementary school kids, for high school kids, for college kids. Because now we really do have essentially free and ubiquitous data. So the complimentary scarce factor is the ability to understand that data and extract value from it.

I think statisticians are part of it, but it’s just a part. You also want to be able to visualize the data, communicate the data, and utilize it effectively. But I do think those skills—of being able to access, understand, and communicate the insights you get from data analysis—are going to be extremely important. Managers need to be able to access and understand the data themselves.

You always have this problem of being surrounded by “yes men” and people who want to predigest everything for you. In the old organization, you had to have this whole army of people digesting information to be able to feed it to the decision maker at the top. But that’s not the way it works anymore: the information can be available across the ranks, to everyone in the organization. And what you need to ensure is that people have access to the data they need to make their day-to-day decisions. And this can be done much more easily than it could be done in the past. And it really empowers the knowledge workers to work more effectively.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Netbook Effect article

In The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen famously argued that true breakthroughs almost always come from upstarts, since profitable firms rarely want to upend their business models. "Netbooks are a classic Christensenian disruptive innovation for the PC industry," says Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied both Quanta's work on the One Laptop per Child project and Asustek's development of the netbook.

In the US, we regard branding and marketing—convincing people what to buy—as core business functions. What Asustek proved is that the companies with real leverage are the ones that actually make desirable products. The Taiwanese laptop builders possess the atom-hacking smarts that once defined America but which have atrophied here along with our industrial base. As far as laptop manufacturing goes, Taiwan essentially now owns the market; the devices aren't produced in significant volumes anywhere else.

Netbooks are evidence that we now know what personal computers are for.Which is to say, a pretty small list of things that are conducted almost entirely online. This was Asustek's epiphany. It got laptop prices under $300 by crafting a device that makes absolutely no sense when it's not online. Consider: The Eee's original flash drive was only 4 gigs. That's so small you need to host all your pictures, videos, and files online—and install minimal native software—because there's simply no room inside your machine.

Netbooks prove that the "cloud" is no longer just hype. It is now reasonable to design computers that outsource the difficult work somewhere else. The cloud tail is wagging the hardware dog.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Board Game Reference

Board Game Geek - Extremely detailed reviews, many ways to sort/filter

Recommended Board Game Stores
Funagain Games
Fair Play Games

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Quantity > Quality

An anecdote from the book, Art & Fear

Found in a blog post on LifeClever

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - ”the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Conclusions from the blog post:
  1. Don't drown in the details - "Shitty First Draft"
  2. Quality improves with each iteration

Definition of an expert

Post on Coding Horror

Being an expert isn't telling other people what you know. It's understanding what questions to ask, and flexibly applying your knowledge to the specific situation at hand. Being an expert means providing sensible, highly contextual direction.

Advice from James Bach:
  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Don't confuse experience with expertise.
  • Don't trust folklore -- but learn it anyway.
  • Take nothing on faith. Own your methodology.
  • Drive your own education -- no one else will.
  • Reputation = Money. Build and protect your reputation.
  • Relentlessly gather resources, materials, and tools.
  • Establish your standards and ethics.
  • Avoid certifications that trivialize the craft.
  • Associate with demanding colleagues.
  • Write, speak, and always tell the truth as you see it.
So if you want to be an expert in practice rather than in name only, take a page from Steve McQueen's book. Don't be the guy telling everyone what to do. Be the guy asking all the questions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

MBA in 2 words - Speak Up!

Article on

Repeatedly, the ones who emerged as leaders and were rated the highest in competence were not the ones who offered the greatest number of correct answers. Nor were they the ones whose SAT scores suggested they'd even be able to. What they did do was offer the most answers — period.

"Dominant individuals behaved in ways that made them appear competent," the researchers write, "above and beyond their actual competence." Troublingly, group members seemed only too willing to follow these underqualified bosses. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the teams used the first answer anyone shouted out — often giving only perfunctory consideration to others that were offered.

Data as a business plan

Article on

"The data is the infrastructure," in the words of Sean Gorman, the CEO of FortiusOne, a company that builds layered maps around open-source geographic information. For every spreadsheet squirreled away on a federal agency server, there are entrepreneurs like Gorman ready to turn a profit by reorganizing, parsing, and displaying it.

Dozens of software and marketing firms, meanwhile, thrive entirely on slicing and interpreting U.S. Census data, released free in a format called Tiger. Google Earth and Microsoft Visual Earth both depend on government satellite data and private sources for their underlying maps, while real estate websites like Zillow and Trulia take advantage of housing and demographic feeds from state and local governments. More recently, Web 2.0 startups like CloudMade and Swivel have developed user-driven widgets to visualize and combine public data sets.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Elegant? Or under deadline, under budget, just works?

Post on The Daily WTF

Only a select few get paid to develop “sexy” software, whereas most of us are stuck developing the boring stuff.

There’s a term for this type of boring software: information systems. And while the purpose of an information system changes from company to company, as do the specific requirements, they all are essentially the same. There’s a database that models the real world, rules to define how the data may be changed, an interface to the database, and lots of different reports.

As Michael A. Jackson said in his 1975 Principals of Program Design, “Programmers… often take refuge in an understandable, but disastrous, inclination towards complexity and ingenuity in their work. Forbidden to design anything larger than a program, they respond by making that program intricate enough to challenge their professional skill.”

This thirty-five year-old observation is confirmed day-in and day-out here on TDWTF. Some of the most egregious code and stories written here stem from the developer’s desire for cleverness. Carrying out these desires is neither malicious nor devious, but merely instinctual.

Essential rules that must be followed when developing business information systems:
  1. Learn the business
  2. Serve the business
  3. Learn off the job
  4. Code mostly business
  5. Tedium is inescapable
  6. Find satisfaction elsewhere
  7. Get another job

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Burden of Social Networks article by Steven Levy

Guilty. I feel guilty that I have a blog and haven't contributed to it for seven months. Guilty that all my pals on Facebook post cool pictures, while the last shots I uploaded were of Fourth of July fireworks—from 2007. Guilty that I haven't Dugg anything since, well, ever.

That's where my guilt comes in. Because of time constraints and just plain reticence, I worry that I'm snatching morsels from the information food bank without making any donations. Instead of healthy, reciprocal participation, I'm flirting with parasitic voyeurism.

So, driven by guilt, I try to pitch in. I post Facebook status reports, send iPhone snapshots to Flickr, link my Netflix queue with FriendFeed. But as my participation increases, I invariably suffer another psychic downside of social networking: remorse.

The more I upload the details of my existence, even in the form of random observations and casual location updates, the more I worry about giving away too much. It's one thing to share intimacies person-to-person. But with a community? Creepy.

What is the proper balance between social networking and personal privacy? What about the effect of the permanence of digital information, when everything is stored "in the cloud"? In 10 years, will you regret your Facebook status updates or vacation pictures - not knowing who has archived or saved them for their own personal use?

Friday, February 6, 2009

DataViz Resources

Quick-R: clear, simple description of R
R Resources: at Cerebral Mastication
One R Tip A Day
StatsRUs: an R Cookbook
Revolutions: news about R, statistics, etc. from REvolution Computing
R for Psychology: many R snippets, code samples
SimpleR: a short course in R

Flowing Data
WallStats blog
Stephen Few's blog
Ben Fry
Information Aesthetics

Graphics Design
Squidoo Lens

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What It Takes To Survive

Link to Newsweek excerpt of book by Ben Sherwood

Why do some people live and others die? Why do a few stay calm and collected under extreme pressure when others panic and unravel? How do some bounce back from adversity while others collapse and surrender?

The best survivors and thrivers understand that crisis is inevitable, and they anticipate adversity. Understanding that even misfortune gets tired and needs a break, they're able to hold back, identify the right moment and then do what they need to do. Psychologists have a clunky term for this: active passiveness. It means recognizing when to stop and when to go. In a critical sense, doing something can mean doing nothing. Action can be inaction, and embracing this paradox can save your life.

In any emergency, people divide into three categories, Leach says. First, there are the survivors like the 155 people on US Airways Flight 1549, who manage to save themselves in the worst situations. Second, there are unavoidable fatalities: people who never have a chance, like so many of the 200,000 people in Southeast Asia who were swept away by the tsunami of 2004. Third, there are victims who should have lived but perished unnecessarily.

After examining countless disasters and categorizing the ways people respond to life-threatening situations, Leach came up with what might be called the theory of 10-80-10. First, around 10 percent of us will handle a crisis in a relatively calm and rational state of mind. The top 10 percent are leaders, like a few passengers on the US Airways flight who took charge and guided others off the plane.

Leach says the vast majority of us—around 80 percent—fall into the second category.

The last group—the final 10 percent—is the one you definitely want to avoid in an emergency. Simply put, the third band does the wrong thing. They behave inappropriately and often counterproductively. In plain terms, they freak out and can't pull themselves together. And they often don't survive.

Neuroticism is a personality trait of people who tend to be anxious, tense and sensitive to stress, he explains. In the gorilla experiment, people with high levels of neuroticism are very serious and intense about their assignment to count the number of basketball passes. People with low levels are calmer and less sensitive to stress. According to Wiseman, lucky people usually are more laid-back and open to life's possibilities—like giant headlines in his newspaper experiment—while unlucky people are more uptight, nervous and closed off.

Wiseman has concluded that there are four reasons why good things happen to certain people:
  1. Lucky people frequently happen upon chance opportunities
  2. Lucky people listen to their hunches and make good decisions without really knowing why
  3. Lucky people persevere in the face of failure and have an uncanny knack for making their wishes come true
  4. Lucky people have a special ability to turn bad luck into good fortune
Psychological concepts mentioned in the excerpt:
  • active passiveness - knowing when to stop, and when to go
  • incredulity response - people simply don't believe what they're seeing
  • normalcy bias/analysis paralysis - people act as if everything is OK and underestimate the seriousness of danger
  • inattentional blindness - we don't notice things when we don't pay real attention

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Recognition: Pros and Cons

A post from The Simple Dollar

Pros: a great source of motivation, when used wisely
Cons: can lead to short-term decisions with very bad long-term consequences

This need for recognition runs through our lives. It feels a lot better to get positive attention from other people than it does to be met with indifference or with negative attention. It drives a lot of the little choices we make, too.

The painful truth, though, is that such recognition is fleeting. After the impressed people have gone away and your big purchase is forgotten about, you’re left with some big bills and a budget that’s being stretched to its limit to cover it. The recognition is over but you’re still paying for it.

Consider another path. Go for the low end on your purchases. Get that late model used car instead of the new one. Buy a smaller house. These purchases won’t get you that immediate recognition, but it does earn you several other things. You’re not stuck with the big bills, giving you breathing room to save for the future. That can directly lead you to an earlier retirement or to other things that you personally value - travel, financial security, and so on.