Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Career politicians

I am suspicious about the intentions of anyone who says he is a "career" politician. Such people typically are scoundrels.

Anyone with integrity seeks to provide value in the world. Administration, governance and bureaucracy is parasitic on others' production, at best it is neutral and at worst detrimental to usage of scarce resources.

The concentration of power in centralized administration has only "produced" genocide of more than 50 million people (WW1, WW2, Korea, Stalinist Russia, Mao China, Vietnam, Sudan ...) in the 20th century.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Your dream fulfilled - in Redwood City, CA.

Amazing real estate in the incomparable Bay Area:
Americans have always dreamed about being cowboys - a distinctly American profession. Well, if you own this house, you can practice corralling small children or pets! Maybe you could have a rodeo and lasso your cat! Try riding your dog! Or other American Dream fun fill activities.

Friday, November 16, 2007

On jobs, retirement and slavery

Something I found in my archives, dated Nov 28, 2002.
About the notion of "job".

The ancient Babylonians had a type of slavery in which the slaves worked for their masters and were paid a bit for that. If they so wished, they could sell crafts for themselves to make extra money in their spare time. They also had an option of buying their freedom.

(Slavery conjures images of flogging and hard physical labour, but the above form almost sounds like the life of an employee - you spend 8 hours a day working for your employer.. are free to do what you want in your spare time, even make money for yourself and can retire if you think you have enough money...)

The modern notion of a job was created by the industrial revolution.

In Victorian England, it was scandalous to do a "job". Any self-respecting individual "worked for himself". Obviously the very idea of a job seemed akin to slavery to the people then.

The subsequent boom in "Manufacturing and Services" made the concept of earning a living by working for another socially acceptable.

That brings us to retirement. This is an interesting creation of 20th century America !

In the 20's and 30's, America went into a deep depression. There just weren't enough jobs for people then.

In those days it was customary for people to work as long as they wanted to. It became imperative for the stability of the economy that older workers be replaced by younger ones.

But people just would not stop working voluntarily due to the difficult economic times. Also the elderly who did quit had no hope of gettign a job again because of all the young people in the job market.

So Social Security Act was passed (Roosevelt's New Deal) which made retirement a glorious event - work until age X (59, 60, 55 whatever) and you life after that will be automatically taken care of!

Cessation of work no longer meant abject poverty and penury, instead now there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Democratizing anxiety rather than opportunity

Excerpts from a review for The Chosen that is worth reading in its entirety.
Proof of extracurricular activities, leadership qualities, letters of recommendation -- we take all these as natural, necessary and even enlightened elements of the college application process, though they cause us endless anxiety. Actually, they don't resemble in the least the way people in Europe or Japan get into college. They're a result of a particular American challenge at the turn of the 20th century, which President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard then characterized as follows: how to "prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews."

By the end of the 19th century, Harvard, Yale and Princeton were committed not primarily to refining the intellect but to welcoming the well-bred, athletic, public-spirited and sociable scions of the privileged -- young men who may not have performed well academically but were destined to be the leaders of the next generation. The result of such measures, at Harvard and elsewhere, was a horrific surprise: too many Jews! Though most of these students were more than academically competent, they didn't fit the usual definition of "gentlemen." The key code word here was 'character', a quality thought to be frequently lacking among Jews but present almost congenitally among high-status Protestants.

Newly established admissions departments gathered increasingly large amounts of "background" data on each applicant. Race? Color? Religious preference? Birthplace of father? Previous surnames used by the family? Mother's maiden name? The need for letters of recommendation was born; so was the interest in extracurricular involvement. Photographs were required, and personal interviews were encouraged, particularly with local alumni who would be most eager to perpetuate the muscular and sociable undergraduate image dear to them. The mechanism was similar to that of self-perpetuating private social and country clubs where new candidates were admitted only if members vouched for them.

Since the number of admission slots was being limited while more and more applicants were meeting the Big Three's academic criteria, the various nonacademic criteria and "intangible qualities" became decisive. One logical alternative -- raising academic standards even higher to get a more brilliant, intellectual class -- was hardly a consideration. By contrast, it was the well-bred students of average intelligence who university elders insisted were more likely to end up as leaders in business and politics -- and to become loyal, generous alumni. Most university leaders made no bones about limiting the "super-bright" to only 10 percent of each class.

Astonishingly, this subjective college admissions system -- designed in the 1920s to discreetly exclude as many "social undesirables" as possible -- is the system we continue to use today. And the central irony of The Chosen is that the very flexibility that was designed to exclude nontraditional students and placate the alumni up to the middle of the 20th century was subsequently available to administrators to accomplish essentially opposite goals.

As the century unfolds, ... [these] three schools had to process these demands [for diversity in admissions] in terms of its own internal constituencies: faculty pressuring for "more brains," students and the press demanding diversity, and alumni in open revolt against any such changes.

Having decided to change the make-up of their student body in this new direction, each school was successful in doing so because from the 1920s on, admissions officers had at their disposal a variety of nonacademic criteria by which to evaluate applicants. And as Karabel notes, moves to include previously excluded groups were not terribly radical since the Big Three, in fact, "had never been pure academic meritocracies."

Dramatic as these developments appear, they hardly constitute a sea change in how universities make such decisions. University administrations still view a move to completely meritocratic selection as neither in their self-interest nor realistic. Instead, Karabel convincingly shows this new institutional behavior to be the result of constant administrative shifts in order to maintain an uneasy balance among competing demands.

Much has changed in who now constitutes "the chosen" -- the elite prep schools, for example, can no longer count on a high proportion of their graduates getting into the Big Three. "As a consequence, deep apprehension about college admissions now extends to the highest reaches of the upper class," Karabel writes. But much remains the same. "At the same time, the children of the working class and the poor are about as unlikely to attend the Big Three today as they were in 1954. It is no exaggeration to say that the current regime in elite college admissions has been far more successful in democratizing anxiety than opportunity."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Market Sentiment

Comedy video explains how the market converts the tens of thousands lent to an unemployed black man in a string vest in Alabama to the more respectable Bear Sterns high grade structured credit enhanced leverage fund.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Principle of Least Surprise

Andrew Koenig has a post on surprises in designs:
[In APL,] a surprising result comes from three applications of the principle of least surprise:

1) It should be possible to have an array with no dimensions, and a zero-dimensional array should be the same thing as a scalar.

2) The size of an array should be a vector with one element for each dimension of the array.

3) When you do arithmetic on a scalar and a vector, the result has the same size as the vector.

Choosing the least surprising behavior in these three contexts causes the surprising behavior that the average of a scalar sum(v)/size(v) is an empty vector.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Life changing tech items -- wishlist

Google RSS, with feeds to technorati, gizmodo, techmeme and a few other early adopter sites. Thumbing through these in your free time will show you all of the upcoming tech trends and why they will change your life.
  • GPS
  • ---> internet radio
  • slingbox
  • at&t edge card for nationwide high speed internet access
  • A good DSLR camera.
  • Satellite radio
  • ---> shoe store
  • cellphone bluetooth headset
  • Anti-TP-Delamination spray (two ply)
  • Amco citrus squeezers
  • NetVibes as your RSS reader
  • to send those text msgs instead of using a phone
  • Sonos Music System makes MP3s available in any room with speakers
  • Roomba
  • Speakman shower head, screw off the back and knock out the flow regulator
  • upconverting DVD player from 480p (standard) to 720p/1080i (high def)
  •, to quickly organize and store digital photos

Get TVersity (free software) and and one of PS3 / XBox 360 / any uPnP media player. Rip all your DVDs to hard drive (AutoGK) and you can now flix though them like a video jukebox on your TV. You can also watch internet video feeds, for example Youtube, on your TV.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

There can only be one ... ketchup!

Excerpt from an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame:
There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of ... cooked tomato. "Umami adds body," Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. "If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it's thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food." When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. ... Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Installing a new external hard drive

First change the jumper to Master. It is usually set to Cable Select for internal hard drives.

Then for Windows 2000/XP, do the following:
  • Right click on My Computer
  • Choose Manage (This will open the Computer Management window).
  • Go to the Storage category and select Disk Management
  • Right click the new drive (usually listed as Hard Disk 1) and "initialize"
  • You now have the option to partition and format the drive.
  • The default settings of Primary Partition and NTFS- Quick Format are recommended for most users.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Change a traffic light at will

Kipkay has a video on metacafe that shows how to change a traffic light at will:
Press the cross button 3 times quickly,
2 long presses,
1 short,
2 long,
3 short.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Interchangeable Parts

Excerpt from "Holding a Program in One's Head":
One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that's what programs are: ideas.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Scalene triangles puzzle

Yesterday, God Plays Dice posed a scalene triangle puzzle:

Given a right triangle with integer sides, show that there is another integer-sided scalene triangle with a 60 degree angle and 1.5 times the perimeter of the given triangle.

Isabel posted the solution, but it involved getting several examples and making conjectures from them about the scalene-60 triple. Since I dislike the production of conjectures from data, and strongly prefer derivations from first principles, here is my detailed solution:

Consider scalene-60 triangles, there is one angle bigger than 60 degrees and one smaller. (Total is 180)
Say the side opposite 60 is z.
Let the smaller one be x=z-a, and the bigger one be y=z+b where both a and b are positive.
From triangle inequalities, you get

Then using cosine rule: x2 + y2 - xy = z2

Plug stuff in and simplify like crazy,
z(a-b) = (a2 + b2 + ab)

If a=b, then this becomes a=b=0, the equilateral triangle.
As the RHS is strictly non-zero, a>b.

Simplifying, z = (a-b) + 3ab/(a-b)

(z-a, z, z+b) generates all such tuples! The only condition on a,b is that (a-b) must divide 3ab.

Now (a-b) divides a if and only if (a-b) divides b.
(Proof: x divides a and x divides a-b, therefore x must divide b, now set x = a-b)

So we can scale a and b by (a-b) and get another triple.

In other words, it is enough to consider the two cases: a-b = 1, and a-b = 3.

Actually, we have parametrized all possible scalene-60 triples:
With a-b=3, we get one sequence and another with a-b=1

As an aside, this is an interesting picture:
If you draw a 60 degree angle and mark off 8 on one arm, use that endpoint to draw an arc of radius 7, it will intersect the other arm at 2 places -- at 3 and at 5. The angles correspond to arccos(1/7) and 180-arccos(1/7)

Coming back to the puzzle, all right triangles can be parametrized as (m2 - n2 , 2mn, m2 + n2 ) or a scalar multiple thereof, where m and n are co-prime and have opposite parity.
The perimeter is 2m(m+n).

1.5 times perimeter is 3m(m+n)

Can we map this to the scalene-60s?

Let us see. Try the first sequence: a-b=3
gives us z = b2 + 3b + 3 for triangle (z-a, z, z-b)
with perimeter 3z-3 = 3(z-1) = 3(b+2)(b+1)

Looks similar to what we want!

Now it is just a matter of fiddling with the definitions of (m,n) and (z,a,b) to get the common parametric form:
Right triple is (m2 - n2, 2mn, m2 + n2)
Scalene-60 is (m2 - n2, m2 + mn + n2, m2 + 2mn)
[Substitute b=(m-n)/n; and scale the triple (z,a,b) by n]

We are home and have a sequence of scalene-60 triangles left over!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The US employment based immigrant visa system

  • It is advisable to not change jobs except after all but one stages are approved, and the last one (Form I-485) has been pending for 6+ months.
  • For Indian and Chinese-born persons, it is imperative to apply in EB1 classification, the so-called "PhD category", from an established R&D department of a bigger company.
  • All other categories have queues pending several (2-5) years.
  • Mexico is impossibly backlogged (10+ years) except for persons with advanced degrees.
  • Philippines has some issues as well.
  • For nationals born in any other country, it is merely a procedural matter.
  • Family based immigrant visas are hopelessly backlogged for all nationals.
There now you can hold your own in any immigration related conversation.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Using sunrocket gizmo as an almost free telephone

Sunrocket, which was the 2nd largest VoIP provider in the US recently declared itself dead. So I was left with a phone adapter that was now effectively an expensive paperweight.

After some internet searches, I found a way to convert it to an almost free landline. Details follow.

I had the Innomedia Gizmo, which I first unlocked as follows:

Innomedia devices from sunrocket come with SNMP enabled. The community strings is private. The admin password OID is SNMPv2-SMI::enterprises.3354.
So we browse this and change it. Download GETIF
1 - After you start the tool enter the IP address of you device in Host Name field, say
2 - Change the Read community to private (default is public)
3 - Click on start
4 - click on MBrowser tab
5 - St the bottom of the window you will see 3 fields that you can enter values in.
The first field is the OID enter .
The second field is the type. Change it to string
The 3rd field is the value. Enter any value you want (That's the new password).
6 - Click on the set button

Make sure:
1. Firewall is NOT blocking port 161. Be sure to enable that port.
2. Be sure WAN is connected to internet connection, LAN directly to the machine you are trying to SNMP from.
3. Browse to and use admin and the password you just set!

Next use the unlocked gizmo with Gizo Project and Grand Central as a VoIP phone.
  1. Sign up for a Gizmo Project (note the SIP number) and
  2. Sign up for a Grand Central account (this is the new telephone number).
  3. Setup the unlocked Sunrocket Gizmo device to work with Gizmo Project
    1. Disable Provisioning. Go to IP Network-> Provisioning Setting. Uncheck the Enable Provisioning box.
    2. Setup your SIP Proxy. Go to VOIP->SIP Proxy. Use the settings in this image. got cut off on this.
    3. Change your User Account. Go to VOIP->User Account. Your user ID is your Gizmo Project SIP number with the one before it. Your password is your gizmo project password. Image.
    4. Test Setup Setup your gizmo so that it is directly connected to the internet. The order should be modem - gizmo - router. If you want to put your gizmo after your router, you will need to forward UDP ports 5004, 5005, and 64064 to your voip gizmo, and enable QoS in the router. If you use a static IP for the gizmo, you will also have to set the DNS servers in the Gizmo.
  4. Finally, Setup Grand central to forward calls to your gizmo project account.
If you have your Gizmo project program running on the PC, you may have trouble receiving calls.

When I accept a call, it tells me to press 1/2/3/4, when I do that, it does nothing. Keypad does not seem to work, but it works with my cell phone. Here is the fix for this issue:
1) Telnet into your gizmo and enter the login and password of the gizmo (obviously case sensitive)
2) Press C2 and make sure RFC2833 (SDP and 2833 packets) is ALWAYS OFF, Otherwise press 0 (zero) to turn it off.
3) Press Cs
4) Look for Use SIP INFO for DTMF = Yes
5) If it says no, then press c to change settings.
5.1) Look for 18. SIP INFO for DTMF
5.2) Press 18 to set it to yes
5.3) Press y at the prompt -- Use SIP INFO for transmitting DTMF digits?[y/n]
5.4) Press w to write setting to Flash
6) Power cycle the gizmo

You should now be able to accept GC calls and negotiate menus anywhere else, e.g., VM using th etouch tone keypad. Remember to set your phone to use tone dialing (not pulse).

Activating the second line on the gizmo:
1) Telnet into your gizmo and enter the login and password of the gizmo (obviously case sensitive)
2) Press Mp
3) Follow the on-screen prompts to activate both lines
4) Power cycle the gizmo

Voila! Free incoming calls forwarded via Grand Central and outgoing calls at 1.9c/min via Gizmo Project.
Connecting to the gizmo when it is behind a router -- use a static IP, say, for the gizmo. In this case, also set correct DNS servers on the Gizmo, especially when changing ISP, otherwise it won't work! Alternatively:
Say "ipconfig" on a network machine to find the address, say, of the default gateway/router.
Get the DHCP table from the router and lookup the Gizmo's IP address. The gizmo registers itself as "000XXX0XX4XX". Say this is for instance.
Use that IP address to get the management page for the Gizmo.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Large vs. small companies.

Most large organizations are similar -- it just takes forever to get anything done and you have to negotiate with (beg of?) several people. Things are inefficient. Things move slowly. People don't care one way or the other most of the time.

This is not a defect in the system. Rather it is intentional. Reason (well, my hypothesis) -- large corps are merely trying to stay in business, not necessarily trying to innovate constantly. Their existence is not threatened every day. Accordingly they are optimized for continuity / stability than for efficiency / churn.

Startup life is arguably better -- you get to discuss strategy more than you get to do so as a corporate employee, (but orders of magnitude less than the founders and executive management). Eg: Today the CEO and two of us were talking about the business model of another startup, over lunch. That is typical.

As romantic as a startup sounds, for the founders it is actually a lot of infrastructure activity and for research-y types, often boring -- sales, marketing, fund raising, coding, tech work, hiring. Marc Andreessen has has a wonderful blog series on Silicon Valley startup culture.

However, for the employees, the work itself is far more focused than a corporate job, so you won't get diversity in what you do. The agenda is set in stone by the business plan and the CTO and there is no scope to budge an inch outside of that.

Instead, stay in a corporate job, and use the corporate setup to your best advantage -- get your immigration sorted out, read, travel, get some continuing education or personality development courses, pick up new skills or hobbies. That'll keep you excited and reduce your boredom.. :)

Here is an interesting thought -- On the Dilbert blog, recently Scott Adams recommended trying to get in the top quartile of the population in 2+ different things and then co-relate them, thus making a niche for oneself. He was in the top quartile of three things -- comedy and cartoon/drawing and knowledge of business culture. In any of the individual areas 25% of the people are better than him but in the intersection (Dilbert cartoon strip) he is easily in the top 1%.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mark to model vs. Mark to market

An excerpt from a study of valuations -- market pricing vs. fair pricing:
What is the common theme among Franklin, the Granite Funds and LTCM? All three depended on exploiting deviations in market value from fair value. And all three depended on "patient capital" -- shareholders and lenders who believed that what mattered was fair value and not market value. That is, these fund managers convinced their stakeholders that because the fair values were hedged, it didn't matter what happened to market values in the short run — they would converge to fair value over time. That was the reason for the "Long Term" part of LTCM's name.

The problem with this logic is that capital is only as patient as its least patient provider. The fact is that lenders generally lose their patience precisely when the funds need them to keep it — in times of market crisis. As all three cases demonstrate, the lenders are the first to get nervous when an external shock hits. At that point, they begin to ask the fund manager for market valuations, not models-based fair valuations. This starts the fund along the downward spiral: illiquid securities are marked-to-market; margin calls are made; the illiquid securities must be sold; more margin calls are made, and so on. In general, shareholders may provide patient capital; but debt-holders do not.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Why people do things

Insightful excerpt on utility:
Vast amounts of human behaviour can be explained not by causal utility but by symbolic utlity, to use Nozick's distinction. We do many things not because they improve our (or others) objective well-being, but to signal who we are.
For instance:
  • Running in a race for cancer, world hunger, or child education

Monday, July 02, 2007

Improving democracy

Excerpts from a book review in the New Yorker on how to improve democracy in order to get better government and improve policy making:
... voters cherish irrational views on many issues ... relevant to economic policy. The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy). Economists know that these positions are irrational, because the average person actually benefits from market competition, which provides the best product at the lowest price; from free trade with other countries, which (for American consumers) usually lowers the cost of labor and thus the price of goods; and from technological change, which redistributes labor from less productive to more productive enterprises.

People do not ... vote their self-interest: ... “Precisely because people put personal interests aside when they enter the political arena,” Caplan says, “intellectual errors readily blossom into foolish policies.” People really believe that the country would be better off if profits were regulated, if foreign goods were taxed, and if companies were prevented from downsizing. Politicians who pander to these beliefs are more likely to be elected, and the special interests that lobby for protectionism and anticompetitive legislation are the beneficiaries—not the public. The result, over time, is a decline in the standard of living.

... [M]ost economists peg the optimal level of government involvement in the economy too high, because they overestimate the virtues of democracy. ... some suggestions for fixing the evils of universal democratic participation: require voters to pass a test for economic competence; give extra votes to people with greater economic literacy; reduce or eliminate efforts to increase voter turnout; require more economics courses in school, even if this means eliminating courses in other subjects, such as classics; teach people introductory economics without making the usual qualifications about the limits of market solutions.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Magazines get it late.

The annals of obvious research presents this bit: Are cover stories effective contrarian indicators?

Apparently by the time magazine covers feature a company outperforming its competition, most of the trend is over. Well, isn't that blindingly obvious? A magazine article is supposed to analyze past events and make for interesting reading, and almost any event is best explained in hindsight when all the facts are available, not in real time while it unfolds and some or most of the key facts are hidden from public view.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fund Creator

The New Yorker reports that hedge funds charge more in fees than the value they add :
“It is possible to design mechanical futures-trading strategies which generate returns with the same, and often better, risk-return properties as hedge funds,” [Kat] said. “This means investors can have hedge-fund returns but without the massive fees and all the other drawbacks that come with the real thing.”
What you need to replicate this : a highly trained British trader-turned-academic and a graduate student in finance trained in computer programming. And Voila! You can create or replicate as many hedge funds as you wish, with no fees to boot.
"If you are really convinced that you can find those super managers, then don’t waste your time with our stuff. Go look for them. But if you are a bit more realistic, if you know that eighty per cent of hedge-fund managers aren’t worth the fees they charge, then the rational thing to do is to give up trying to find a super manager, and just go for a good, efficient diversifier instead."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Does watching TV make us happy?

... individuals with incomplete control over, and foresight into, their own behavior watch more TV than they consider optimal for themselves and their well-being is lower than what could be achieved.
-- Recent paper from the Journal of Economic Psychology, Vol 28, Issue 3, June 2007

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Remembering and forgetting

At least under clinical conditions,
sometimes we're more likely to remember words that we were instructed to forget, while being more likely to forget words that we were instructed to remember. How can this be?
Thus begins the interesting Remembering can lead to forgetting, recent research reported by the British Psychological Society from the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Convergence and Divergence.

Excerpt from an post predicting the imminent failure of the iPhone:
In the high-tech world, divergence devices have been spectacular successes. But convergence devices, for the most part, have been spectacular failures.

The first MP3 players (the Diamond Rio, for example) were flash-memory units capable of holding only 20 or 30 songs. The first iPod, on the other hand, had a hard drive and could hold thousands of songs. Now there were two types of MP3 players, a classic example of divergence at work.

The first computer was a mainframe computer, followed by the minicomputer, the desktop computer, the laptop computer, the handheld computer, the server and other specialty computers. The computer didn't converge with another device. It diverged.

When the cellphone was first introduced, it was called a "car phone" because it was too big and heavy to lug around. You might have thought it would eventually converge with the automobile. It did not. Instead it diverged and today we have many types of cellphones.

... a host of other divergence devices that have been enormously successful: the digital camera, the plasma TV, the wireless e-mail device, the personal video recorder, the GPS navigation device.

And an entertaining defense of the Apple Phone:
As comedian Ricky Gervais recently put it in one of his stand-up routines, we don't need to be able to take a piss in the washing machine because we've already got toilets. Yet, every time I pack my iPod, phone, BlackBerry and laptop into my travel bag, along with all their various chargers, I find myself wishing I had one mobile device. Call me irrational, but I'm willing to believe the iPhone might be the one.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The best vs. Doing your Best

Question from the author of The Dip:
"if you accomplish that, will you be seen by your audience as the best in the world, or will you be seen as doing your best?"

If you're doing your best, only your AYSO soccer coach cares. If you're the best in the world, the market cares. The secret, if you have limited resources (don't we all) is to make 'world' small enough that you can actually accomplish that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Soldier's low pay

Insightful excerpts from a recent blog post:
The compensating wage for bearing risk varies, obviously, with the risk, and the risk in turn depends on efforts that are and will be made to minimize the risk, including body armor, rescue, medical treatment, and so forth. Knowing that one's fellow soldiers do not just abandon one when the cost of rescue would be disproportionate to any tactical value of the rescue reduces the wage that a volunteer army has to pay to attract soldiers of the quality it wants. ...

Persons who join the military to obtain or exercise technical skills have civilian alternatives, so the military has to compete with civilian employers for the services of such persons. But if you want to be a combat soldier, there is only one possible employer (if you are an American) and that is the U.S. government. So the government can pay a low wage to persons desiring that employment--in fact it seems that it can pay a lower wage than it does to its military technicians (adjusting for the value of the technical training that the latter receive) even though the latter are less exposed to combat risks.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Big Brother -- real time monitoring of gunshots

Excerpts from a funding report:
When a gun goes off, wireless sensors spread throughout a neighborhood register the instant the sound wave reaches them, using GPS to pinpoint the moment to within 20 nanoseconds. The sensors then transmit the timing data to a server within the police department’s control. This server makes the calculations necessary to triangulate the source of the sound and, within 5-10 seconds of the shot being fired, specially-equipped police cars on patrol get both the precise origin of the shot and a playback of its audio signature, allowing the officers to determine how many shots were fired and make a tactical decision from there.

The technology ... is deployed in neighborhoods throughout 15 American cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, and DC.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Management personality

Excerpts from a summary of the NYT Magazine "Boss Science":
It’s much more important to be open than to be intelligent if you want to succeed as a leader. And conscientiousness is good for being the person who does stuff, not the person who leads. Agreeable is a good trait for a great team player, bad trait for a boss. Neuroticists are good when you need to hear about the worst-case scenarios, all the time.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Blowback is the name used by the CIA for the Law of Unintended Consequences. Examples:
  1. Encourage and arm Hussein in Iraq, leading to an oil crisis in the Persian Gulf.
  2. Subsidize corn production and lead to American obesity and illegal immigration from Mexico.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Internet speels doom for Merchants selling access.

The telecom industry collapsed with cheap bandwidth.

The Recording Industry and Motion Pictures industry found their business models outdated with the advent of MP3s, Napster and P2P file sharing.

The publishing industry is struggling in the wake of the onslaught of blogs and online newscasts.

The next casualty is going to be the mortgage industry -- Prosper, Zopa, Lending Club and others are making it easy to borrow small amounts of money. How long before greedy realtors, who merely "provide access to money with no fiduciary responsibility", are out of business?

Value of Software..

Software itself violates the free market. For an item to have value, it must have utility and scarcity. As the marginal cost of production of a unit of software is damn near 0 (it is fractions of a penny of electricity), software does not have scarcity. Thus it has no value. The rules of economics don't apply to it, or more correctly, an entirely new model needs to be created, but does not currently exist.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Oil prices...

If diesel is less than regular unleaded, then there is a shortage of refinery capacity - which primarily drives up gasoline prices.

If diesel is more than regular unleaded, then the price of crude oil is driving the prices.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

alcoholism and obesity

Q: What is the common link between alcoholism, an American problem of the past several decades, and obesity, the central problem of the next few decades?

A: The federal subsidy for corn is the common cause.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Google vs. memory...

This post says Google is making us dumber.

Unfortunately, that is the curse of all technology -
First we do not bother to remember small things.
Since we cannot recall small things quickly, we lose our edge.
Then we lose our ability altogether in that domain.

Google is to human memory what the calculator was to arithmetic ability -- replacement.

Losing "Being Lost"

Some musings from a post on Shaping the future --
Right now, Nokia is designing global positioning system receivers into every new mobile phone they plan to sell. GPS receivers in a phone SIM card have been demonstrated. GPS is exploding everywhere. It used to be for navigating battleships; now it's in your pocket, along with a moving map. And GPS is pretty crude — you need open line of sight on the satellites, and the signal's messed up. We can do better than this, and we will. In five years, we'll all have phones that connect physical locations again, instead of (or as well as) people. And we'll be raising a generation of kids who don't know what it is to be lost, to not know where you are and how to get to some desired destination from wherever that is.

"Being lost" has been part of the human experience ever since our hominid ancestors were knuckle-walking around the plains of Africa. And we're going to lose it — at least, we're going to make it as unusual an experience as finding yourself out in public without your underpants.

Predicting the future is tough business, and anyone might get lost in the eddies of time, but not in 3D space anymore, it would seem. Another one: driverless cars.
They're going to redefine our whole concept of personal autonomy. Once autonomous vehicle technology becomes sufficiently reliable, it's fairly likely that human drivers will be forbidden, except under very limited conditions. After all, human drivers are the cause of about 90% of traffic accidents: recent research shows that in about 80% of vehicle collisions the driver was distracted in the 3 seconds leading up to the incident. There's an inescapable logic to taking the most common point of failure out of the control loop — my freedom to drive should not come at the risk of life and limb to other road users, after all. But because cars have until now been marketed to us by appealing to our personal autonomy, there are going to be big social changes when we switch over to driverless vehicles.

Once all on-road cars are driverless, the current restrictions on driving age and status of intoxication will cease to make sense. Why require a human driver to take an eight year old to school, when the eight year old can travel by themselves? Why not let drunks go home, if they're not controlling the vehicle? So the rules over who can direct a car will change. And shortly thereafter, the whole point of owning your own car — that you can drive it yourself, wherever you want — is going to be subtly undermined by the redefinition of car from an expression of independence to a glorified taxi.

One thing is fairly clear - dreamers will never be out of business!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

France+ US = Canada ?

Saw this blog post today ad it set me thinking...
France is very socialist and the US is very capitalist; time-wise, the French value leisure, the US, work; the French emphasize equal society, the US, meritocracy; the French take care of their poor but shun the immigrant (an immigrant is a foreigner even if legal and 3rd generation, there is no way to ‘become French’), the US welcomes immigrants (comparative to almost any western nation) who want to work and embrace our values but we don’t take care of our poor. We both, however, tend to be nationalistic, arrogant, deeply politically divided, and idealists about our countries’ history and founding values of freedom and equality.

As France has moved left, the US has moved right, and it seems that both countries are having a little buyer’s remorse. Wanted: A country with lofty goals, a society that recognizes that hard work is the force that creates a civilized world, but also that it isn’t worth much if you don’t take the time to enjoy and think about the civilization you’re working so hard to create, one that wanted to include all members of it’s society no matter race or social class, but also kept a strong sense of identity and individual freedom. Let’s see, a cross between the US and France. Hmmm…Canada, anyone? Yeah, really friendly people would be a plus, too.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

false positive vs. false negative

Recently saw this great post on Slashdot by an anonymous author:
To Google, hiring is mathematically equivalent to Information Retrieval, except that they only care about "precision" not "recall".

What that means to lay-people is that so long as they can maintain 10,000 applications coming through per-month, false negatives (passing on a suitable applicant) do not matter because there'll be another candidate along in a minute. False positives (hiring an unsuitable applicant) are all they need to focus on. The "fit factor" is effectively the search string of traits; however, with such a large candidate pool, they can focus their "hiring algorithm" entirely on rejecting candidates where it is even slightly difficult to ascertain whether they fit or not.

So, their advertising blitz "aren't we a great place to work for" is a part of what lets them keep their hiring process easy. If they get bad PR and applications fall, then they'll need to worry about recall as well as precision.

Also, read Two Kinds of Judgement, which discusses this issue in some depth.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cubicles, not walls in offices..

The law of unintended consequences strikes again. Joel Spolsky explains why companies cram employees into cubicles rather than private offices, despite lower productivity of the former. In short, the government has defined what a business may define as a deductible business expense in favor of cubicles!

We're going to need a much bigger space now: on the order of 15,000 square feet. To build that much office space could cost a couple of million dollars. With the lack of deductibility, your bank account goes down by three million dollars. The landlord will pay a fraction of that, but not enough to make it affordable.

There's a loophole. Office furniture can be depreciated much faster than leasehold improvements, over 7 years. So for $20 of office furniture you can deduct about $3 a year: better than nothing. Even better, office furniture is a real asset, so you can lease it. Now you're not out any cash, just a convenient monthly payment, which is 100% deductible.

This is why companies build cubicle farms instead of walls, even though the dollar cost is comparable.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Not all beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

Excerpt from an essay on the inherent (non-subjective) quality of art:
My main point here is not how to have good taste, but that there can even be such a thing. And I think I've shown that. There is such a thing as good art. It's art that interests its human audience, and since humans have a lot in common, what interests them is not random. Since there's such a thing as good art, there's also such a thing as good taste, which is the ability to recognize it.

Art is man-made. It comes with a lot of cultural baggage, and in addition the people who make it often try to trick us. Most people's judgement of art is dominated by these extraneous factors. ... So it turns out you can pick out some people and say that they have better taste than others: they're the ones who actually taste art like apples.

... the people [with good taste are the ones] who (a) are hard to trick, and (b) don't just like whatever they grew up with. If you could find people who'd eliminated all such influences on their judgement, you'd probably still see variation in what they liked. But because humans have so much in common, you'd also find they agreed on a lot. They'd nearly all prefer the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a blank canvas.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Software Development at Microsoft.

Ever wondered why Microsoft Windows is so horrible to use? Here is a description of how the "Shutdown" option was coded. Excerpts from The Windows Shutdown Crapfest:
... that nets us an estimate ... of 24 people involved in this feature. Also each [of the three teams] was separated by 6 layers of management from the leads, so let's add them in too, giving us 24 + (6 * 3) + 1 (the shared manager) 43 total people with a voice in this feature. Twenty-four of them were connected sorta closely to the code, and of those twenty four there were exactly zero with final say in how the feature worked. Somewhere in those other 19 was somebody who did have final say but who that was I have no idea

[H]ere's how the design process worked: approximately every 4 weeks, at our weekly meeting, our PM would say, "the shell team disagrees with how this looks/feels/works" and/or "the kernel team has decided to include/not include some functionality which lets us/prevents us from doing this particular thing". And then in our weekly meeting we'd spent approximately 90 minutes discussing how our feature -- er, menu -- should look based on this "new" information. Then at our next weekly meeting we'd spend another 90 minutes arguing about the design, then at the next weekly meeting we'd do the same, and at the next weekly meeting we'd agree on something... just in time to get some other missing piece of information from the shell or kernel team, and start the whole process again.

Windows has a tree of repositories: developers check in to the nodes, and periodically the changes in the nodes are integrated up one level in the hierarchy. At a different periodicity, changes are integrated down the tree from the root to the nodes. In Windows, the node I was working on was 4 levels removed from the root. The periodicity of integration decayed exponentially and unpredictably as you approached the root so it ended up that it took between 1 and 3 months for my code to get to the root node, and some multiple of that for it to reach the other nodes.

So in addition to the above problems with decision-making, each team had no idea what the other team was actually doing until it had been done for weeks. The end result of all this is what finally shipped: the lowest common denominator, the simplest and least controversial option.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

More interested in feeling good than doing good.

How do you contribute to charity? Is it really the optimal choice to make?
... the way we choose to dole out cash betrays our true motives. Someone with ₤50 to give away and a world full of worthy causes should choose the worthiest and write the cheque. We don’t. Instead, we give ₤2 to the street collector for Save the Children, pledge ₤15 to Comic Relief, another ₤15 to Aids research, and so on. But ₤15 is not going to find a cure for Aids. Either it is the best cause and deserves the entire ₤50, or it is not and some other cause does. The scattergun approach simply proves that we’re more interested in feeling good than doing good.

None of this is to say that these contributions are worthless nor economically insignificant. Just don’t get too starry-eyed about the motives behind them.

Made in Japan

Wars allowed for the rapid adoption of interchangeable parts (guns for Napolean), electrification (WW1 factories) and containerization (Vietnam military supplies), collectively creating the wealth of the Western World.
... during the Vietnam war ... as early as 1965 the military build-up was being hampered by what the journalist Marc Levinson calls “the greatest logistical mess in the history of the US armed forces”. In The Box, Levinson’s new book about the shipping container, he argues that container shipping provided the answer. Once the military was sold on the idea, there were two swift consequences: a dramatic expansion of container shipping to US forces in Europe, and fleets of empty ships sailing back from Vietnam, offering cheap rates to the rapidly expanding Japanese manufacturers. The rest is history.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Too busy to...

Excerpts from an article on why people no longer do the simple things in life -- cook, tend the garden, or even walk the dog:
Personal value systems ... can guide a person's decisions as much as monetary measures can. A simple stir-fry dinner ... comes in one of two ways: ready-made or made from scratch. Though the ready-made meal might cost more, someone who earns $30 an hour might not mind coughing up an extra $5 (about ten minutes' worth of wages) to save ten minutes of preparation time in the kitchen. That person might value convenience more than culinary prowess.
Everything is just another chore to be finished ASAP. No one has time to stop, stand and stare.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How to start a war?

A quote from Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Reichsmarshall:
“Why, of course, the ‘people’ don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship…. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Three Interesting methods to start a war (scroll down to Feb 13, 2007):
(1) The FDR way of manipulation (Japan)
(2) The LBJ way of forgery (Vietnam)
(3) The GWB way of invasion (Iraq)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

The New York Times Magazine reports that healthy food is good for you. That the food lobby would rather have you eat "nutrients" than eat wholesome food.


Friday, January 26, 2007

The amazing power of gubernatorial veto

Gov. Jim Doyle used his partial veto 139 times to shape the state budget to his liking. Among his moves was to increase a transfer from the transportation account to the general fund from $268 million to $427 million. To do so, he crossed out hundreds of words, stringing together individual words from unrelated sentences to write a new sentence. To get the $427 million figure, he took individual digits from five sets of numbers.

See pages 373-374 of 2005 Wisconsin Act 25.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Inequity in wealth distribution

Excerpt from article on the Gini coefficient:
In their study for the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Giovanni Andrea Cornia and Julius Court (2001) reach policy conclusions as to the optimal distribution of wealth. The authors recommend to pursue moderation also as to the distribution of wealth and particularly to avoid the extremes. Both very high egalitarianism and very high inequality cause slow growth. Extreme egalitarianism leads to incentive-traps, free-riding, high operation costs and corruption in the redistribution system, all reducing a country's growth potential.

However, extreme inequality also diminishes growth potential by eroding social cohesion, and increasing social unrest and social conflict, causing uncertainty of property rights. Therefore, public policy should target an 'efficient inequality range'. The authors claim that such efficiency range lies between the values of the Gini coefficients of 0.25 (the inequality value of a typical Northern European country) and 0.40 (slightly lower than that of countries such as China and the USA). The precise shape of the inequality-growth relationship depicted in the Chart obviously varies across countries depending upon their resource endowment, history, remaining levels of absolute poverty and available stock of social programs, as well as on the distribution of physical and human capital.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Internet and adult entertainment.

An interesting excerpt from a PBS Frontline interview:
Clearly one of the main reasons initially for getting on the Internet was sex. If you look at the words almost any one of the Internet suppliers has kept track of, you'll find that "sex" is probably the most frequent word used as they look for programming of any sort. So clearly, there is a desire to see it.
I think what Yahoo did was go one step beyond and say, "OK, my customers want to see sex. I'll make it easier for them, and I'll categorize it." And I think what they realized afterward was that they were taking a far more active role in supplying this programming than just making it available. "Here's bestiality, here's whips and chains, here's whatever." That was going into probably more active participation by Yahoo than they really wanted to do.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Prayers don't help heart surgery patients.

An excerpt from research on intercessory prayer by Harvard's Herbert Benson:
In a clear setback for those who believe in the power of prayer, their prayers were not answered. Prayers offered by strangers did not reduce the medical complications of major heart surgery. Not only that, but patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of receiving it.
Prayer is an illusion -- a video comparing the impact of praying to God versus praying to a jug of milk.