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.

Quotes on Religion

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
- Steven Weinberg

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.
- Victor Stenger

A one sentence definition of mythology? "Mythology" is what we call someone else's religion
- Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Roombas on steroids article about autonomous warehouse robots

The comment about auto-tuning warehouses is particularly interesting:

The system adjusts to the nature of the products and workers, too. In a typical setup, the humans are placed around the edges of the room. As the robots pick up loads of products and put them back, they adjust the warehouse for greater efficiency. More popular products end up around the edges of the warehouse while more obscure products, like those acid-washed bell bottoms, end up buried deep in the stacks. The self-tuning nature of the system creates big efficiencies.

"We find that it's two to four times more efficient [than the average warehouse]," said Wurman. "A big chunk of the benefit comes from the fact that we've eliminated all of the walking."

And an additional benefit:

That allows warehouse operators to switch off the lights and climate controls in the large areas of the warehouse that are patrolled solely by robots, cutting energy costs by as much as 50 percent over a standard warehouse.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Data visualization - Zipcodes

Link to a Java applet by Ben Fry

Page text states that the visualization was built using Processing

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Favorite web tools

List of my favorite web tools

Resume advice in two words: Be Specific

It seems to me that this entire post can be boiled down to two words:

Be Specific

Use actual numbers from your past experience, and for bonus points, be prepared with documentation or proof of your specific examples. Easy to say, but hard to do as it requires ongoing maintenance of your resume, rather than throwing one together prior to a job hunt.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Men resist food more easily than women?

Link to a article

... as often happens, the husband drops the weight a lot faster than the wife does. Well, guess what, guys? It's not your steely resolve or your trips to the gym or your superior genes that are entirely behind it. It might just be your brain.

What the men could do that the women couldn't was quit ruminating on food, successfully suppressing — if only temporarily — the conscious desire to eat. The women continued experiencing emotional cravings even if their hunger had subsided.

My personal jury is still out on Facebook

But this article has a funny and insightful take on it.

A discussion about bar charts

A post responding to Seth Godin by Stephen Few

The three laws of great graphs (according to Seth Godin):
  1. One story
  2. No bar charts
  3. Motion
Stephen Few's opinion is that Seth Godin is using hyperbole to make a point, but overstates the weaknesses of bar charts. The blog post then proceeds to analyze (in detail) the strengths of bar charts in comparison to Seth Godin's suggested use of pie charts.

There is also a link to another leader in the field of data visualization, Jon Peltier, discussing bar charts versus pie charts.

Reading that blog post led to another blog post at the same site, this one with many useful links.

Bonus link to Cytoscape, which looks useful for visualizing networks

Another bonus link to, which has a gallery of data visualizations (mostly networks, but some others).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Servant Leadership

Reading the article mentioned in the previous post led to checking for articles that I may have missed, hence this article on by Joel Spolsky

I think this opening anecdote says it all, although the application of the anecdote to Joel's company, Fog Creek Software is quite fun to read as well.

At one point as a grunt in the Israeli Army, I was assigned to work for a high-ranking sergeant major. This guy had years of experience. He was probably 20 years older than me and the other kids in the unit. Even in the field, he always looked immaculate -- he wore a spotless, starched, pressed, full-dress uniform with impeccably polished shoes no matter how dusty and muddy the world around him got. You had the feeling that he slept under 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets each night while the rest of us rolled around in dusty sleeping bags on the ground.

As for the sergeant major's job, it basically consisted of two main duties: being the chief disciplinary officer and maintaining the physical infrastructure of the base. As such, he was a terror to everyone in the battalion. Most people knew him only from the way he strutted around, conducting inspections, screaming at the top of his lungs, and demanding impossibly high standards of order and cleanliness in what was essentially a bunch of tents in the middle of the desert -- tents that were alternately dust-choked or mud-choked, depending on the rain situation.

Anyway, on my first day of work for the sergeant major, I didn't know what to expect. I was sure it was going to be horrible, a suspicion that seemed to be confirmed when he took me to the officers' bathroom and told me I would be responsible for keeping it clean. And then he said something I didn't anticipate.

"Here's how you clean a toilet," he said.

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl -- in his pressed-starched-spotless dress uniform -- and scrubbed it with his bare hands until it shined.

To a 19-year-old assigned to clean toilets, which is almost by definition the worst possible job in the world, the sight of this high-ranking, 38-year-old, manicured, pampered disciplinary officer cleaning a toilet was a shock. And it completely reset my attitude. If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet, I thought. There's nothing wrong with cleaning toilets. My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. Now that's leadership.


Our company was built on the idea of hiring smart and productive people and then clearing the decks. The late, great minicomputer company Digital Equipment Corporation, better known as DEC, was so adamant about this idea that people in the company used the word administration in place of management and modeled its corporate hierarchy on that of a great research university.

The brains behind the university are the professors. They do the groundbreaking medical experiments on rhesus monkeys and gain insight into the psychology of man by closely observing the behavior of college sophomores. Obviously, these geniuses shouldn't waste a moment of their valuable time on administrative tasks.

Thus, universities hire support staff to collect tuition payments and figure out who should get that great parking space near the duck pond. (At the very most, a good university might rotate the administrative tasks among the faculty, but ideally, it has a team of professionals to keep the trains running on time.) DEC behaved in much the same way.

Your employee just made you a million bucks - what do you do?

Link to article by Joel Spolsky

So we added classified ads to the site. Noah wrote the first draft of the code in about two weeks, and I spent another two weeks polishing and debugging it. The total time to build the job listing service was roughly a month.

Instead of charging the going rate of $250, we decided to charge $350. Why not? I figured we could establish ourselves as having the premium product simply by charging a premium.

By the time you read this, that little four-week project will have made Fog Creek Software $1 million -- nearly all of it profit.

That raised a question: How do you properly compensate an employee for a smash-hit, million-dollar idea? On the one hand, you could argue that you don't have to -- a software business is basically an idea factory. We were already paying Noah for his ideas. That was the nature of his employment agreement with us. Why pay twice? But I felt we needed to do something else to express our gratitude.

How do you pay employees based on performance when performance is so hard to quantify? The very idea that you can rate knowledge workers on their productivity is highly suspect and always problematic. If you mess up, the consequences are very real.

Psychologists talk about two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is what drives you to do something regardless of whether you will receive a reward. Why do you spend an hour cleaning the inside of your stove? Nobody looks in there. Your intrinsic motivation compels you to do a thorough job. We all have it -- in fact, most people start out with the desire to excel at whatever they do. Extrinsic motivation is the drive to do something precisely because you expect to receive compensation, and it's the weaker of the two.

The interesting thing, according to psychologists, is that extrinsic motivation has a way of displacing intrinsic motivation. The very act of rewarding workers for a job well done tends to make them think they are doing it solely for the reward; if the reward stops, the good work stops. And if the reward is too low, workers might think, Gosh, this is not worth it. They will forget their innate, intrinsic desire to do good work.

Joel's solution:

We decided to give Noah 10,000 shares of stock -- conditional on him coming back to work for us full time when he graduated.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Data Visualization - Savior of Newspapers?

Is the survival strategy for print journalists to change the way they deliver information to consumers (from ASCII text to interactive, dynamic visualizations)?

Slashdot article

that links to a New York magazine article about the New York Times

and also to some Java applets about factors affecting the spread of AIDS and the factors affecting the length of baseball games

A comment on the Slashdot article states:
The real problem in the United States is that investigative reporting, digging around, doing follow-up, attributing sources, getting people to go on record - is hard work and nobody wants to do it.
However, on the flip side, sometimes a good visualization is really the best way to convey the information obtained from investigative reporting to the consumer.

I'd like to see a newspaper article that conveys the information that this (admittedly large) image contains: - Death and Taxes 2009

An interesting take on the issue by Seth Godin

Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Don't wait for happiness - it's right here, right now

Link to post

When I was young, I couldn’t wait to become an adult. Oh, the freedom! Becoming an adult would bring me happiness. I couldn’t wait.

When I became an adult, I couldn’t wait to get a good job. That would surely bring happiness. I couldn’t wait. When I got a good job, I couldn’t wait to get a raise. When I got a raise, I couldn’t wait to get married. When I got married, I couldn’t wait to buy a nicer car. Got the car, then I couldn’t wait to buy a house. When I bought the house, I couldn’t wait to … get out of debt.

I could go on for quite awhile, but you get the point. None of my desires ever produced happiness, because I was stuck in the mindset of wanting more. When I got what I wanted, I wanted something else. My happiness was always on hold, because I was waiting to reach a goal.

Stop waiting for happiness. Happiness is right here, right now.

So how do you go for goals and still have happiness right here, right now? By remembering that the important thing isn’t the destination … it’s the journey!

Think about it: if you are only happy once you reach a goal, what about all the time you spend getting to the goal? That’s much more of your life than actually being at the goal. If you’re only happy when you’re at the destination, you’ll be unhappy most of the time.

What’s more, if you are stuck in that mindset, when you reach your destination, you won’t actually be happy — you’ll be looking toward your next destination.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Minimalist Fitness

How to exercise with just body weight and a chinup bar

Blog post from Zen Habits

Refresh your business model (with pricing)

Changing your pricing changes your story.

Lawyers with per-job pricing, instead of charging by the hour. Microsoft's potential new pricing strategy of charging for software by time (and features) used. Airlines charging to check bags (and thereby incentivizing passengers to carry-on more luggage, increasing the time taken to plane/deplane passengers).

The approach to pricing airline seats seems like a way to take an opaque market (all pricing is controlled by the airlines) to a more market-driven, transparent approach. Or perhaps speculators will gain control of the market and traveling on the holidays will suddenly become incredibly expensive?