Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Longevity advice

from Dr. Marle Charlotte De Goliere Devenport, 109 years old as of November 27, 1933.

"Never get angry; learn self control; develop agility; be quick and lithe, not musclebound; avoid excesses in all things; don't put anything on your face that you wouldn't put in your stomach; don't let your mind die."

Google News, Courtesy of Metafilter

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Proofiness (or data != information)

Blog post by Seth Godin

As the number of apparently significant digits in the data available to us goes up (traffic was up .1% yesterday!) we continually seek causation, even if we're looking in the wrong places. As the amount of data we get continues to increase, we need people who can help us turn that data into information.

Proofiness is a tricky thing. Data is not information, and confusing numbers with truth can help you make some bad decisions.

Friday, December 3, 2010

~1,300 pitches in a 4D visualization

New York Times visualization

First 1:40 of the video introduces some background and concepts.
Next minute is a killer 4D visualization - X, Y, Z, and time.

That's a lot of data crunched down to support some great storytelling.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How to pack for a year

Blog post at LostGirlsWorld

The list of gear she relied on heavily is quite interesting:
  1. Bag in a Bag
  2. Zinetic Pocket Slippers
  3. Headlamp
  4. Pack towel
  5. Sleep sack/sleeping bag
  6. Ziploc Big Bags
  7. Fleece Pillowcase
  8. iPod
  9. U-Pillow
  10. Compression Sacks
The list of gear she got rid of is also quite instructive:
  1. Synthetic long sleeve tops (start to smell after prolonged use)
  2. Travel shirts
I'm particularly intrigued by Zinetic Pocket Slippers, as they are cheaper (and perhaps slightly more socially acceptable) than Vibram FiveFingers. Unfortunately, Zinetic appears to be a small manufacturer and it's difficult to find any stores with stock.

Friday, November 12, 2010

You can't see what you don't measure...

The Big Picture

If the goal of the Dow Jones Index is to give a single-number summary of the US equity market, the articles listed above argue (convincingly, IMO) that the goal is not being met.

By weighting the prices of a small number of stocks, instead of the market capitalizations of a large number of stocks, the Dow fails to capture the true effects of money flowing in and out of the market as a whole.

Given the amount of time and energy spent following the Dow Jones Index, I would argue that there should be a strong effort to make the index as accurate as possible (or restate the goal). Or, as the Slate article suggests, use a different index.

That's why money managers prefer to use broader market-cap weighted indexes to help create their own portfolios and benchmark their own performances. 

Another alternative: RAFI 1000

EDIT: My title was inspired by a quote I'd read before. Here, it is used in a article describing how airport security in the US could be vastly improved by focusing on the people, rather than the threats.

We have a saying in Hebrew that it's much easier to look for a lost key under the light, than to look for the key where you actually lost it, because it's dark over there.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Paradox of Choice

TED talk by Barry Schwartz

Ever since I saw the TED talk, I find more and more examples that support the idea that limitless possibilities actually cause paralysis. For instance, the rise in popularity of recommendation engines, e.g. Netflix - there are millions of available movies, help me to narrow down my choices to the ones I'm likely to enjoy.

Another example from the New York Times

“The customer walks in the door, and often sees a huge selection of stuff in a multibrand store, and can’t figure out what to buy and ends up buying nothing,” said Paco Underhill, founder and chief executive of Envirosell, a Manhattan-based company that advises stores on shoppers’ behavior.

To maximize the profit per square foot, these retailers have to focus on selling lots of a few items. If you're not limited by physical space, how can you better monetize the Long Tail? Algorithmic recommendation engines (Based on your preferences and/or history, you might like...)? Social recommendation engines (Based on your friends, you might like...)?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Non-intuitive Optimization

Article at The New York Times

Dr. Todorov has studied how we use our muscles, and here, too, he finds evidence of optimization at play. He points out that our body movements are “nonrepeatable”: we may make the same motion over and over, but we do it slightly differently every time.

“You might say, well, the human body is sloppy,” he said, “but no, we’re better designed than any robot.”

In making a given motion, the brain focuses on the essential elements of the task, and ignores noise and fluctuations en route to success. If you’re trying to turn on a light switch, who cares if the elbow is down or to the side, or your wrist wobbles — so long as your finger reaches the targeted switch?

Dr. Todorov and his coworkers have modeled different motions and determined that the best approach is the wobbly, ever-varying one. If you try to correct every minor fluctuation, he explained, not only do you expend more energy unnecessarily, and not only do you end up fatiguing your muscles more quickly, you also introduce more noise into the system, amplifying the fluctuations until the entire effort is compromised.

“So we reach the counterintuitive conclusion,” he said, “that the optimal way to control movement allows a certain amount of fluctuation and noise” — a certain lack of control.

Blog article about genetic optimization of Starcraft 2 build orders

A build order refers to the exact opening steps you take early in the game that best supports the strategy you are trying to conduct.

One of the reasons build-order optimization is so important is that you can discover openings that “hard-counter” other openings. If I can get an army of N size into your base when you do opening X, you will always lose.

The most interesting part of this build (the 7-roach rush), however, is how counter-intuitive it is. It violates several well-known (and well-adhered-to) heuristics used by Starcraft players when creating builds.

My take-home lesson: Don't limit yourself by requiring things to "make sense". Allow reality to broaden your mental horizons.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lessons for data visualization from Steven Johnson's "The Ghost Map"

Blog post at PeteSearch

Snow wasn't the first person to draw these kinds of maps, he wasn't the first to draw them to track disease, and in fact he wasn't even the first person to map this particular outbreak! The Sewer Commision produced a very detailed map showing the death locations. The power of Snow's version came from his decision to leave out a lot of details (sewer locations, old grave sites, etc) that cluttered up the Commision's version. Their map was so muddled that it didn't tell a story, but Snow's was stripped-down to show exactly what he needed to bolster his theory that the epidemic spread from the water pump.

As Johnson puts it in his book "the map was a triumph of marketing as much as empirical science".

Turning data into money

Blog post at PeteSearch

Here's my hierarchy showing the stages from raw data to cold, hard cash:
  1. Data
  2. Charts
  3. Reports
  4. Recommendations
You're offering them direct ways to meet their business goals, which is incredibly valuable. This is the Nirvana of data startups, you've turned into an essential business tool that your customers know is helping them make money, so they're willing to pay a lot.

My rephrasing of Pete's post: Showing people information is usually not enough. You often have to recommend what to DO with that information.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Watching "the game"

Something of a misnomer...

Football (article from the Wall Street Journal)
According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.

The typical length of a broadcast is 185 minutes, making the actual game ~6% of your typical broadcast.

Baseball (article from the Wall Street Journal)

A similar study of two nine-inning baseball games, one from Fox and another from ESPN.

The result is that during these games, there was a nearly identical amount of action: about 14 minutes. To put that in context, that's about 10.9% of the total broadcast time (excluding commercials).

Add in commercials, and the proportion drops even lower.

Reminds me of the "human" body, where human cells are outnumbered 10 to 1 by bacteria.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quotes by John Tukey

This is my new personal motto.

The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.
- John W. Tukey. Exploratory Data Analysis. 1977.

Hat tip to Flowing Data

And another great one to remember

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.
- John Tukey

Hat tip to Flowing Data

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Using capitalism, for good

Blog post by Seth Godin

Part 1: The bottom is important.
Almost a third of the world's population earns $2.50 or less a day. The enormity of this disparity takes my breath away, but there's an interesting flip side to it: That's a market of more than five billion dollars a day. Add the next segment ($5 a day) and it's easy to see that every single day, the poorest people in the world spend more than ten billion dollars to live their lives.

Part 2: The bottom is an opportunity (for both buyer or seller).

Part 3: It's not as easy as it looks
So you see the paradox. A new product and approach and innovation could dramatically improve the life and income of a billion people, but those people have been conditioned to ignore the very tools that are a reflex of marketers that might sell it to them. Fear of loss is greater than fear of gain. Advertising is inefficient and ineffective. And the worldview of the shopper is that they're not a shopper. They're in search of refills.
The answer, it turns out, is in connecting and leading Tribes. It lies in engaging directly and experientially with individuals, not getting distribution in front of markets. Figure out how to use direct selling in just one village, and then do it in ten, and then in a hundred. The broad, mass market approach of a Western marketer is foolish because there is no mass market in places where villages are the market.

Part 4: The (eventual) power of the early adopter
Just because it is going to take longer than it should doesn't mean we should walk away. There are big opportunities here, for all of us. It's going to take some time, but it's worth it.

Seth Godin's blog post relates to the mission of the Acumen Fund, "Investing in businesses to end global poverty"

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Simplicity is highly overrated

(in mass-market consumer goods)

Blog post by Don Norman

If a company spent more money to design and build an appliance that worked so well, so automatically, that all it needed was an on-off switch, people would reject it. “This simple looking thing costs more?” They would complain. “What is that company thinking of? I’ll buy the cheaper one with all those extra features – after all, it’s better, right? And I save money.”

Logic and reason, I have to keep explaining, are wonderful virtues, but they are irrelevant in describing human behavior. Trying to prove a point through intelligent, reasonable argumentation is what I call the “engineer’s fallacy.” (Also, the economist’s fallacy.”)  We have to design for the way people really behave [emphasis added], not as engineers or economists would prefer them to behave.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stats make something else interesting (golf)

Along the same lines as my previous post regarding fashion, statistics are making golf interesting.

Slate's "Moneygolf" series
Seven million shots
How golf really works
The dark art of putting

FYI - "Moneygolf" is a reference to Michael M. Lewis' book "Moneyball", which talks about the field of Sabermetrics (statistics applied to baseball).

FYI2 - After recently watching "The Blind Side" (an emotional drama), I was very surprised at first to find out that it was based on a book by Michael Lewis ("an American contemporary non-fiction author and financial journalist"). However, after finding out that there were two story lines in the book - one about the evolution of NFL offensive strategy and one about Michael Oher - I am once again reminded of the changes that occur when a book is transformed into a movie.

Monday, August 9, 2010

But will it make you happy?

Article at the New York Times

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.

New phrase of the week - "hedonic adaptation"

The website mentioned in the article is most likely:
100 Thing Challenge

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Data can make ANYTHING interesting

Even fashion, which every person who knows a modicum about me would say is something I show extremely little interest in.

Article at the Wall Street Journal

Online retailers, in particular, see every click we make. They know which brands we've peeked at, how long we pondered, and what we actually purchased. They know the time of day and the days of the week that we shop. They know—and record—our color choices, sizes and tastes so that they can recommend clothes that are in tune with our yearnings.

Some of the data confirm regional stereotypes. Southerners bought more white, green, and pink than other regions' residents, for instance, according to data from private-sale site, which caters to young, urban professional women. Now I know, too, why I feel like such a loner wearing brown in Los Angeles, where black, white and gray are preferred.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The value of authenticity

Article at

If I had access to a secret stash of iPhone knockoffs — a phone that worked identically to the real iPhone, but was a bootleg made of inauthentic parts — how much could I charge? Could I sell them for $10 less than the purchase price of a real iPhone? What about 25 percent off? How much is authenticity worth?

This is a great summary line:

There are many blankets in the world. But there is only one blankie. The best brands are blankies.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Top Idea in Your Mind

Blog post by Paul Graham

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That's the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they're allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it's a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

You can't directly control where your thoughts drift. If you're controlling them, they're not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want think about.

I've found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding.... One I've already mentioned: thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done.

For me, this ties into the ideal of simplicity - your life should be simple (i.e. free of distractions) so that you can focus on what is important to you. A cluttered life makes it very difficult to choose a desirable "top idea".

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A/B Testing and Groundhog Day

Blog post at Coding Horror

Phil doesn't just go on one date with Rita, he goes on thousands of dates. During each date, he makes note of what she likes and responds to, and drops everything she doesn't. At the end he arrives at -- quite literally -- the perfect date. Everything that happens is the most ideal, most desirable version of all possible outcomes on that date on that particular day. Such are the luxuries afforded to a man repeating the same day forever.

But at the end of this perfect date, something impossible happens: Rita rejects Phil.

Phil wasn't making these choices because he honestly believed in them. He was making these choices because he wanted a specific outcome -- winning over Rita -- and the experimental data told him which path he should take. Although the date was technically perfect, it didn't ring true to Rita, and that made all the difference.

While I think the analogy between Groundhog Day and A/B testing is perfect, I disagree with the conclusion that "A/B testing is like sandpaper. You can use it to smooth out details, but you can't actually create anything with it."

I would argue that A/B testing is useful because it reveals what people actually prefer, rather than what they say they prefer. Often there is quite a gap between the two. Also, as many of the commenters pointed out, A/B testing is just a tool - you don't have to limit yourself to testing tiny, incremental tweaks. You can creatively explore the world of possibilities, while basing your final choice on hard data.

As one commenter pointed out, the analogy to Groundhog Day breaks down because at the end of the day, "It's a movie. She rejects him, not because of some inherent failure in the method he uses, but because it was written that way in the script."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sergey Brin's Search for a Parkinson's Cure

Article at Wired magazine

Brin’s tolerance for “noisy data” is especially telling, since medical science tends to consider it poisonous. Biomedical researchers often limit their experiments to narrow questions that can be rigorously measured. But the emphasis on purity can mean fewer patients to study, which results in small data sets. That limits the research’s “power”—a statistical term that generally means the probability that a finding is actually true. And by design it means the data almost never turn up insights beyond what the study set out to examine.

Increasingly, though, scientists—especially those with a background in computing and information theory—are starting to wonder if that model could be inverted. Why not start with tons of data, a deluge of information, and then wade in, searching for patterns and correlations?

This is what Jim Gray, the late Microsoft researcher and computer scientist, called the fourth paradigm of science, the inevitable evolution away from hypothesis and toward patterns. Gray predicted that an “exaflood” of data would overwhelm scientists in all disciplines, unless they reconceived their notion of the scientific process and applied massive computing tools to engage with the data. “The world of science has changed,” Gray said in a 2007 speech—from now on, the data would come first.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What is data science?

Article at O'Reilly Radar

An well-written, dense article covering the rise of data science.

I'm not even going to try to summarize the article with excerpts, but I have picked out a portion that best summarizes what I do.

A picture may or may not be worth a thousand words, but a picture is certainly worth a thousand numbers. The problem with most data analysis algorithms is that they generate a set of numbers. To understand what the numbers mean, the stories they are really telling, you need to generate a graph.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cognitive Biases - A Visual Compendium

Slide deck at Scribd

Content mostly from Wikipedia's page on cognitive biases

Why bother looking at these?
Two words: Know thyself

Rest assured that competent marketers know these biases and utilize them, and I'm not just referring to people trying to sell you stuff.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Shop I Want

Blog post at Rands in Repose

We’re in a world where you can find anything you want, which is great, except when you realize there’s a lot of everything. Google was created and thrives attempting to solve the everything problem for us. Google has made it wonderfully simple to find a thing, but just because you find a thing doesn’t mean you care about it. As you stare at a PageRanked list of stuff, you have a choice:

You can sit back and be force-fed the decisions and opinions of others.


You can have an opinion.

It’s not that I want a Stow Davis desk, it’s that I want to find that desk. I want to go to seven different antique shops and spend a weekend developing an opinion about the state of antique desks. I want to find someone who knows the entire history of Stow Davis desks and won’t fucking shut up about them.

The days are long, but the years are short

A great way to describe parenthood, coined by Gretchen Craft Rubin.

She has also made a short Flash video, which is well worth watching for parents who find themselves to be a bit frustrated with the daily grind and need to "reboot" their perspective.

Quote was found as part of this article, on being a more light-hearted parent.

Bonus quote: "happiness equals reality divided by expectations", by Alden Cass

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why is the world a mess?

Blog post by Scott Berkun

1. People don't listen
2. People don't read

There’s this assumption in our culture that with all the TV shows, and books, and websites, we’re all reading more and listening more, but I doubt that. It's become increasingly acceptable not to be listening (e.g. staring at your laptop or phone in meetings) and not be reading (skimming how many emails, or blog posts, in an hour). And I bet any culture, a team, a family, a country, where there is more real listening and real reading, people are happier and more successful at achieving things that matter.

But I’ve yet to see someone monetize listening, or reading. So the whirlwind of commerce naturally encourages less listening and less reading, but more of everything else.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Passive investing, with a dash of market timing

Blog post at Pop Economics

But as tough it is to see if the market is slightly over or underpriced, it’s actually pretty easy to see if it’s way over or underpriced.

Looking back at market prices and earnings for a little more than 100 years, Shiller found that the market’s average P/E10 (the shorthand when you use 10-year earnings) was about 15. What’s more, if you invested when the market was at a high P/E10, your returns for the next 10 years were almost certain to be much less than if you invested when the P/E10 was below 15.

Based on the CAFE10 metric, you slightly tilt your portfolio towards stocks or bonds.

Robert Shiller's CAFE10 Data
updated monthly

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rise of the Data Scientist

This post at FlowingData, which is a response to the "R is an Epic Fail" post at another blog, led me to an older post at FlowingData (which cites Hal Varian's comment regarding the forthcoming sexiness of statisticians).

As someone who finds the label "Data Scientist" appealing, I firmly believe in the following:

Similarly, those who can build visualization and analysis tools are the ones who will provide the next big thing.

So don't get too upset, R programmers, or all data scientists for that matter. While the software was bashed, you're getting a thumbs up. R is not the next big thing. You are. Besides, we all know that data is the new sexy, and in the end it's not about the tools that you use, but what you do with the tools.

My take-home message: Tools don't matter. Results do.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Doing the unprecedented is overrated

Blog post by Stephen Few

...doing the unprecedented is highly overrated.

Most of what we can do to make the world a better place involves, not doing the unprecedented, but doing what matters and what works [emphasis mine], whether unprecedented or not. This might not be as exciting as the unprecedented, but it’s desperately needed. I believe that too many opportunities are wasted because we glorify the unprecedented for its own sake.

In the field of data visualization, failures are more common today than successes, not due to complexity, but to the fact that few people have been trained in the simple principles and practices of graph design. As a result, they rely on software tools to do the work for them and most of those tools lead them astray, encouraging them to produce silly, useless displays...

Here’s an example of one of the earliest quantitative graphs, hand drawn by William Playfair in 1786. In his time, Playfair did the unprecedented by inventing or greatly improving many of the quantitative graphs that we use today.

1786! I think it's pretty clear that software isn't the issue. It's taking the time to learn what the right things are, and being disciplined enough to use them every time you're presenting information. Proper dataviz shouldn't be saved for "when you have time" - it should be an inherent part of the data analysis process.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Arthur Benjamin at TED 2009

"...I think that that [calculus] is the wrong summit of the pyramid. That the correct summit, that all of our students, every high school student should know, should be - statistics. Probability and statistics"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Retirement Marathon

Guest blog post at Get Rich Slowly

This is a great analysis of the power of compound interest. Key points - start early, don't be afraid of risk, and you'll reap the rewards.
  • Early Bird Bob contributed $5,000/yr. for 20 years ($100,000 total contribution). His nest egg at age 67 is $5,938,625.
  • Conservative Carrie contributed $5,000/yr. for 48 years ($240,000 total contribution). Her nest egg at age 67 is $940,127.
  • Live it up Larry contributed $10,000/yr. for 38 years ($380,000 total contribution). His nest egg at age 67 is $4,644,805.
  • Late bloomer Bill contributed $20,000/yr. for 28 years ($560,000 total contribution). His nest egg at age 67 is $3,168,398.
  • Mid-life crisis Melissa contributed $40,000/yr. for 18 years ($720,000 total contribution). Her nest egg at age 67 is $2,005,735.
For my age, this statement from a related post at Get Rich Slowly is key:

It’s human nature to procrastinate. “I can start saving next year,” you tell yourself. “I don’t have time to open a Roth IRA — I’ll do it later.” But the costs of delaying are enormous. Even one year makes a difference.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Should managers know how to code?

Blog post by Scott Berkun

A great analysis of the question, with two answers depending on your heritage - technical or business. My favorite line:

Once you are the boss, your primary job is to do all the things that individual programmers can not do.

Gratitude is a key ingredient to happiness

Post at Get Rich Slowly

A story commonly told by Warren Buffet - "The Lottery of Birth":

Before you enter the world, you will pick one ball from a barrel of 6.8 billion (the number of people on the planet). That ball will determine your gender, race, nationality, natural abilities, and health — whether you are born rich or poor, sick or able-bodied, brilliant or below average, American or Zimbabwean.

If you could put your ball back, and they took out, at random, a hundred other balls, and you had to pick one of those, would you put your ball back in? Now, of those hundred balls … roughly five of them will be American. … Half of them are going to be below-average intelligence, half will be above. Do you want to put your ball back? Most of you, I think, will not. … What you’re saying is, “I’m in the luckiest 1% of the world right now.”

The moral of the story:
We should be designing a society that, as Buffett says, “doesn’t leave behind someone who accidentally got the wrong ball and is not well-wired for this particular system.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IBM's Smarter Planet Commercials

My favorite:

I like nothing better than a great analogy:
If you were to stand at a road, and the cars are whipping by, and all you can do is take a snapshot of the way the road looked five minutes ago...
How would you know when to cross the road?

More commercials from a post at FlowingData

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trust, epiphany, and say vs do

Rough transcript of a speech by Scott Berkun

Think of most of your peers  – how many do you trust? How many would you trust with a special, dangerous, or brilliant idea?  I’d say, based on my experiences at many organizations, only one of every three teams, in all of the universe, has a culture of trust. Without trust, there is no collaboration. Without trust, ideas do not go anywhere even if someone finds the courage to mention them at all.

Next, we need to get past our obsession with epiphany. You won’t find any flash of insight in history that wasn’t followed, or proceeded, by years of hard work. Ideas are easy. They are cheap. Any creativity book or course will help you find more ideas. What’s rare is the willingness to bet you reputation, career, or finances on your ideas. To commit fully to pursuing them.

Say vs Do
Words like radical, game-changing, breakthrough, and disruptive are similarly used to suggest something in lieu of actually being it. You can say innovative as many times as you want, but it won’t make you an innovator, nor  make inventions, patents or profits magically appear in your hands.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Building Trust

Blog post at Rands in Repose

My belief is that a team built on trust and respect is vastly more productive and efficient than the one where managers are distant supervisors and co-workers are 9-to-5 people you occasionally see in meetings. You’re not striving to be everyone’s pal; that’s not the goal. The goal is a set of relationships where there is a mutual belief in each other’s reliability, truth, ability, and strengths.

And I've never heard this definition of trash-talking, but it makes so much sense:

Trash talking is improvisational critical thinking — it’s the art of building comedy in the moment with only the immediate materials provided.

Key thing I took from this post isn't the rules for B.A.B. - substitute the tool that best fits your own situation. For us (this week), that might be Lego Star Wars on the GameCube. It explicitly requires teamwork and the sense of shared accomplishment is a great way to build/maintain trust.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Copying Creates Trends

Post at the Freakonomics blog about Oscar fashions

“Ten minutes after any big awards telecast, the Faviana design team is already working on our newest ‘celebrity look-alike gowns,’” says Faviana CEO Omid Moradi.

The existence of firms like Faviana (or ABS, Promgirl, or any of a number of similar houses) raises fascinating questions about intellectual property. First, how can Faviana get away with blatantly copying a dress that someone else has designed? And second, why doesn’t this rampant and very rapid copying destroy the fashion industry?

The ability of a firm like Faviana to copy a dress means that hot designs spread rapidly, and trends rise and fall. Copying helps to create trends.  It then helps to destroy them: as more and more designers hop on to a trend, the look becomes overdone, and the most fashion-forward consumers hop off.  Copying, in other words, accelerates the fashion cycle.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Data-Driven, rather than Hypothesis-Driven

Article about Google's reliance on data at

Instead of using a semantic framework to build up a theory of language, Google mines its massive trove of data to find contextual word associations.

As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other... "Today, if you type 'Gandhi bio,' we know that bio means biography," Singhal says. "And if you type 'bio warfare,' it means biological."

Want to introduce a new feature? Forget focus groups or relying on management to make decisions, run experiments on actual users!

But Google also has a larger army of testers — its billions of users, virtually all of whom are unwittingly participating in its constant quality experiments. Every time engineers want to test a tweak, they run the new algorithm on a tiny percentage of random users, letting the rest of the site’s searchers serve as a massive control group.

Blog post about data-driven versus hypothesis-driven science

The new data-driven approach suggests that we collect data first, then see what it tells us.

More info can be seen at a previous blog post.

Compressed Sensing

Article at

Compressed sensing works something like this: You’ve got a picture — of a kidney, of the president, doesn’t matter. The picture is made of 1 million pixels. In traditional imaging, that’s a million measurements you have to make. In compressed sensing, you measure only a small fraction — say, 100,000 pixels randomly selected from various parts of the image. From that starting point there is a gigantic, effectively infinite number of ways the remaining 900,000 pixels could be filled in.

The key to finding the single correct representation is a notion called sparsity, a mathematical way of describing an image’s complexity, or lack thereof. A picture made up of a few simple, understandable elements — like solid blocks of color or wiggly lines — is sparse; a screenful of random, chaotic dots is not. It turns out that out of all the bazillion possible reconstructions, the simplest, or sparsest, image is almost always the right one or very close to it.

This question really highlighted the utility of compressed sensing:

Digital cameras, he explains, gather huge amounts of information and then compress the images. But compression, at least if CS is available, is a gigantic waste. If your camera is going to record a vast amount of data only to throw away 90 percent of it when you compress, why not just save battery power and memory and record 90 percent less data in the first place?

"Good" Beats "Innovative" Nearly Every Time

Article at BusinessWeek by Scott Berkun

But it's clear most companies fail not because of their lack of inventiveness; it's their lack of basic competence. Most leaders fail to prevent bureaucracy, hubris, and too many cooks from killing good ideas before they ever get a chance to make it out the door, resulting in the mediocrity we know too well.

Most projects aimed at innovation fail because creators become distracted by their egos from the true goal: to solve real problems for real people. (emphasis added)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Way [Paul English] Works

Article at

It's like hot potato. Except I take it seriously. When the phone rings, I literally jump over the desks just so I can get to the phone before anyone else. I love talking to customers, even angry ones. I learn a lot from them about how to make the site easier to use. When the call's over, I'll say, "If you have any follow-up questions, my name is Paul English; I'm the co-founder of the company." I'll give out my personal cell-phone number. Only one out of 20 people might actually call, but they're blown away when I do that.

I'm not attempting to excerpt-summarize this article - I think the above excerpt gives a flavor of the Paul English's approach. The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

Does Slow Growth Equal Slow Death?

Joel Spolsky article at

If real life is anything like the Civilization series by Sid Meier, I would argue - "Yes!" This one quote from a Civ4 strategy guide sums it up best:
And in this, you’ll see a hint of what’s necessary to win on higher difficulties: more aggression.

Back to Joel Spolsky:
I have always believed that there is a natural, organic rate at which a business should grow, and that if we expanded too fast, the wheels would come flying off.

Uh-oh. Are we actually losing our market leadership position because we're careful?

It's entirely possible. Think of it this way: If you're growing at 50 percent a year, and your competitor is growing at 100 percent a year, it takes only eight years before your competitor is 10 times bigger than you. And when it's 10 times bigger than you, it can buy 10 times as much advertising and do 10 times as many projects and have meetings with 10 times as many customers. And you begin to disappear.

Cultivate Teams, Not Ideas

Blog post at CodingHorror

I wouldn't call ideas worthless, per se, but it's clear that ideas alone are a hollow sort of currency. Success is rarely determined by the quality of your ideas. But it is frequently determined by the quality of your execution. So instead of worrying about whether the Next Big Idea you're all working on is sufficiently brilliant, worry about how well you're executing.

This is all your app is: a collection of tiny details.
- Wil Shipley

If you give a good idea to a mediocre group, they'll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they'll fix it. Or they'll throw it away and come up with something else.
- Edwin Catmull (Pixar)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Slime Mold vs Traffic Planners

Freakonomics article
MSNBC article

A very elegant experimental setup:

The scientists placed food deposits (oat flakes) in a pattern that mimicked the distribution of population in the greater Tokyo area. They also discouraged mold growth in areas corresponding to obstacles like ocean and mountains by placing light sources (mold’s sworn enemy) in these spots. The researchers then introduced a single deposit of the mold on their mock central Tokyo and let the slime do its thing.

The result? The mold formed a network that closely mimicked the actual Tokyo railway map. In terms of efficiency and fault tolerance, the mold performed about the same as the real Tokyo system, and it did so at a slightly lower cost.


Organic development can complement the planning efforts of a central intelligence. Planners see the big picture, but may have limited information about the small details. Organic planning accumulates the collective wisdom of myriad individuals who each know only a very small part of the picture, but know their part very well.

An interesting thought experiment: think about how this describes how a company functions. Are there any lessons that companies (or any other group effort) can learn from slime molds?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Great Lessons from Great Men

From the Get Rich Slowly blog

This article is awesome - like Cliff notes for biographies. Or an executive summary of wisdom.

If I had to pick one to single out:
"No matter how great the talent or the effort, some things just take time: you can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant." - Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report (1985)

In his new book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the difference between those who succeed and those who don't is 10,000 hours. That is, those who achieve mastery have patiently practiced their craft for at least 10,000 hours — the equivalent of five years of full-time work.

Think Different article

The problem isn't usually - or at least isn't only - too little information, but too much, most of it ambiguous, contradictory, or misleading.

If there are flaws in the way that we think, then gathering more and more information isn't a solution. What our intelligence system really needs is ways to avoid becoming trapped by the natural tendency to leap to conclusions and stick with them.

  • They [Organizations] can systematically solicit the views of people with different perspectives, for example, or use devil's advocates who will challenge established views.
  • To compensate for the tendency to rely on implicit understandings, intelligence analysts can be pushed to fully explain their reasoning, allowing others if not themselves to probe the assumptions that often play a large and unacknowledged role in their conclusions.
  • To better recognize the significance of absences, analysts can learn to think explicitly about what evidence should be appearing if their beliefs are correct.
  • Analysts can also be trained to consider, explicitly, what evidence could lead them to change their minds - not only alerting themselves to the possibility that the necessary information might be missing, but also providing an avenue for others to find evidence that might overturn established views.

Striking a balance between communication and inefficiency

A Little Less Conversation

I think this is a fascinating article because while I firmly believe in Brook's Law, I also have a strong desire to "keep everybody on the same page". I think this article is an excellent reminder to myself - go easy on the CC's.

When you started your company, you probably did a great job of communicating. Everybody told one another everything. And your customers loved it, because when they called in to ask about their purchase order, everybody knew where it was. But as you get bigger, you can't keep telling everybody about every purchase order, so you have to invent specific communications systems so that exactly the right people find out and nobody else. Not because it's confidential. Because it's a waste of time.

I firmly believe in this as well, as a general rule. Every action item should be assigned to a single person. Emailed questions should be directed at a single person. Once you email two people asking for information, they each think the other is going to respond and no one responds. This is not to say that people can't work as teams, but every team should have a specific person who is ultimately responsible - this is the only way to ensure accountability.

And on every project, assign one person to make sure that communication happens -- but only the right communication. Otherwise the team will just start having long meetings with everyone there and, frankly, people will socialize, and bloviate, and speechify, and argue about things they don't really care about just to hear their own voices.

Show and Sell: The Secret to Apple's Magic

Article at

Yet when Jobs reveals the company's next product, there's a critical difference: It exists. When possible, it is available for retail purchase the same day. There are few maybes or eventuallys tempering the presentation: "Here is the tiny miracle we've created. We want to sell it to you today."

I'm not a huge fan of Apple products - prefer an open ecosystem rather than one that is locked down - but you can't deny that they've had a huge impact on consumers (or that others could use a bit of Apple's fanatical approach to design).

9 ways to live better, longer, happier

Blog post at Presentation Zen

Move Naturally
(1) You don't need a formal, rigorous exercise plan. We're talking here a change in lifestyle that is fundamentally active. We're designed to move. We've not meant to drive 100 meters in a car to pick up chips at the local store. Walk, do yard work, whatever. Do exercises/activities that you enjoy.

Have Right Outlook
(2) Slow down. When you're constantly in a hurry and stressed out, this has a negative impact on your health. Limiting negative stress is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.
(3) Have a clear purpose. The Japanese call it "ikigai" ???? (lit: life + value, be worth while). You must have a passion, a calling, a purpose. There's got to be a reason to get out of bed every day.

Eat Wisely
(4) Drink a little (wine) everyday.
(5) Eat mainly plant-based foods. Small amounts of meat and fish are OK.
(6) Hara Hachi Bu: Eat until 80% full. Do not eat eat until you're stuffed. (I've talked about this many time before in the context of presentation.)

Be Connected with others
(7) Put family, loved ones first.
(8) Belong to a community. Many in his study belonged to faith-based communities.
(9) Belong to the right tribe. That is, hang out with people with healthy habits, physical and emotional ones.

The "Michelangelo Effect"

Partners Sculpt Each Other to Achieve Their Ideal Selves: If Successful, Relationship Goes Well

The Michelangelo studies show that close partners sculpt one another's traits and skills and promote, versus inhibit, one another's goal achievement. "It's not just that you treat me positively," Finkel said. "You treat me in particular ways that dovetail with my ideal self."

Just as the sculptor chisels, carves and polishes away flaws in the stone to reveal the ideal form, so do skillful partners support their loved ones' dreams, aspirations and the traits they hope to develop, such as completing medical school or becoming more fluent in a second language or more sociable.

Supporting a partner's image of his ideal self, whether it is a vague yearning or a clearly articulated mental representation, helps the loved one reduce the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self.

This totally makes sense to me, since I am more of the school that people adjust and grow towards each other versus one person is perfect for another.

Management lessons from pirates

From this Freakonomic blog article,

Pirates also needed to limit the risk that their leaders would put individual interests ahead of the interests of the ship. Most economists today would call this problem "self-dealing"; Leeson uses the term "captain predation."

...most corporations since the mid-nineteenth century have behaved more like the Royal Navy, with C.E.O.s who have close to unlimited power and employees who have no say in who runs the organization or how it's administered. C.E.O.s have never been kings—they're chosen by a company's board of directors and can be fired at any time—but in practice they have often functioned more like monarchs than like democratic rulers.

Sociology of cooperative video games

Et tu, Mario?

I thought the Contra example was hilarious - I totally remember that feeling as well.

Most cooperative games lie in a vast middle ground, however, a no man's land between altruism and gaming Darwinism that offers up a host of ways to misbehave.

Part of the problem (and the joy) of playing games is that such behavior isn't explicitly condoned or condemned. Looting and friendly fire aren't forbidden by most games, which leaves us to figure out our own rules. This is the right decision: Good game designers allow players to be whoever they want and trust they'll come to their own consensus about what constitutes "fair play." That's why the New Super Mario Bros. Wii was more enjoyable when I played it as God intended—with a good friend and copious amounts of beer. There was no back-stabbing, and no one's feelings were hurt.

The Future of Manufacturing

"The ability to make stuff has been leached out of our society," he says. "It's sad. No, it's worse than sad -- it's almost a criminal act. Because when you think about what has happened -- the rendering down of a population to be consumers -- what you're really doing is rendering people unable to think critically." He decided his next company would address this deficit: It would make it easier to make stuff.

The Future of Manufacturing, from

A good lesson for entrepreneurs:
He saw one problem: Ponoko was not focused on profitability. "A lot of people come to Silicon Valley and they get confused about who they're selling to," says Durham, who invested about $50,000 in the company and now sits on the board. "Is it the press, the VCs, or the customers? And for Ponoko, the customer was third on the list." Durham told ten Have to cut costs and focus on making existing customers happy.

This is much like the waterfall method of software development versus the Agile method - the waterfall method is to create a big plan, then break it up into small manageable steps, and implement the little steps, perform testing, and ship the final product. The Agile method focuses on rapid iteration of code, never getting very far away from code that will actually run and perform some sort of function - no matter how small.

I see the "position the company towards VCs" as equivalent to the waterfall method - you start with your "requirements" based on market research, create a big "design" (business plan), and then try to get VCs to give you the resources you need to implement your plan. Durham's suggestion is to do more of an Agile approach - start trying to make money immediately by satisfying customers. Build up from there - organically growing your business.

Accumulation and Attachment: Finding Balance

From the Get Rich Slowly blog

Non-attachment is letting go of the belief that your happiness depends on holding onto things you think you own.

That's a lot of energy that goes into worrying, protecting, and spending. Your Stuff starts to own you. Attachment and possessiveness can extend beyond material possessions, too. Most of us know someone who tried to hold on so tightly to their partner that the relationship crumbled. We've all seen celebrities who cling to their youth through plastic surgery, the result being anything but youthful.

The idea is not to give up all of your possessions; rather, it is about letting go of the clinging and fear of loss. Because nothing in life is permanent, clinging and fear of loss only cause us to suffer. Focusing on Stuff that can be easily damaged or lost will ensure continual stress and worry until we let go of the attachment.

Good Graphs

Post at the Win-Vector blog

The important criterion for a graph is not simply how fast we can see a result; rather it is whether through the use of the graph we can see something that would have been harder to see otherwise or that could not have been seen at all.

Summary of advice:
  • Make important differences large enough to perceive
  • Make important shape changes large enough to perceive: Banking to 45 degrees.
  • Make sure all the data is equally well resolved.
  • If you want to analyze the difference between two processes, then graph the difference, not the processes (or graph both).
  • If you are interested in rate of change, then graph rate of change.

Mirror Neurons: Why Watching Others Succeed Won’t Help You Succeed

Blog post at The Simple Dollar

To put it simply, we often get the same feeling from watching someone else do something that we would get from doing things ourselves.

And, quite often, those emotional rushes are enough to fulfill us, reducing our drive to actually accomplish things.

Let me put it as simply as I can. If you want to succeed, do. If you want to follow, watch.

A TED talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran briefly explains the biology behind mirror neurons:

This one sentence almost completely sums up my approach to working

From The Leaper, on Rands in Repose

Life in a big or small company is an information game where you are judged by the amount and accuracy of your information.