HT: Stack overflow
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.
Those nice engineers are still hard at work, trying to make it all easier for the rest of us. This time, it is Mozilla with Ubiquitysuggests it may be targeted at Google.
HT: Paul Kedrosky
Exactly why would someone pay that much to hear Jack talk?
Do they think time spent in his presence will make them better managers?
Do they wish to meet other up-and-coming managers (you are not going to find the CEO of IBM at this show), and is the entry fee a way of ensuring that they get to hobnob with just the people they came to meet?
Is it a way to signal to others that they can afford to go, or even better, that they can get their companies to pay for them to go?
I was reminded of this article by Paul Krugman in which Jack Welch makes an appearance, because these programs are both a cause and a consequence of the current exaltation of management, and the adoration of managers.
Bow Down Before Me
Gabrielle Sirkin’s moment came on the heels of Thanksgiving Day last year, five months after she moved to New York. Every day until then, she felt as if she was doing battle daily with the city. But suddenly, on a night flight to Kennedy International Airport from California, Ms. Sirkin, 26, caught sight of the glittering skyline, and, to her great surprise, felt a surge of joy.
“I was really caught off guard by my reaction,” she said. “But I could see Central Park, and the lights on the Chrysler Building, and I wasn’t looking at it as a tourist. I was looking at it as though I was home.”
Ms. Sirkin’s friend Sarah Kasbeer also recalled being consumed by a common strain of existential New York City angst: the sense that no matter where one is, something better is happening — the real New York is in full swing — somewhere else.
“When I first got here, I’d go out in the city with people I worked with, and I felt I was missing something,” said Ms. Kasbeer, who moved to New York from Milan in 2006. I was going to clubs in Chelsea, the Lower East Side, things I wouldn’t do now.”
But sometime during her first year, she stopped trying so hard. “I just realized that I didn’t need to find ‘it,’ that my place in the city would fall into place,” she said. “Now I don’t make an effort; I roll with things. It’s not just the city, it’s yourself that you have to deal with as well.”
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
And frankly, people here seem to be happier with a little bit of middle management. Not middle management that's going to overrule the decisions they make on their own. Not symbolic middle management that only makes people feel important. But middle management that creates useful channels of communication. If my job is getting obstacles out of the way so my employees can get their work done, these managers exist so that, when an employee has a local problem, there's someone there, in the office next door, whom they can talk to.This is, of course, just one reason to have layers of middle management.
I was very surprised that someone as obviously bright as Joel would need to discover this for himself. Surely he would not have thought of running Microsoft the way he runs Fog Creek, and it is not unknown for software systems to have layers of abstraction to allow enable developers to manage its complexity, but I guess it is a question of knowing just when to add a layer of management.
For between £200 and £2,000, people can buy a cow that stands no taller than a large German shepherd dog, gives 16 pints of milk a day that can be drunk unpasteurised, keeps the grass “mown” and will be a family pet for years before ending up in the freezerI wonder what this will do for vegetarianism, when suburban children realize that they just ate Cupcake's sister for dinner. Yum!
A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.
By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.
The most radioactive object in the Solar System??
Less than a mile from what is left of Chernobyl's ill-fated fourth reactor, a pair of elks is grazing nonchalantly on land irradiated by the world's worst nuclear accident. In nearby Pripyat, an eerie husk of a town where 50,000 people used to live before they were forced to flee on a terrifying afternoon in 1986, a Soviet urban landscape is rapidly giving way to wild European woodland.
Radiation levels remain far too high for human habitation but the abandoned town is filled with birdsong and the gurgling of streams forged by melting snow. Nobody thought it possible at the time but 20 years after the reactor exploded on 26 April 1986, during an ill-conceived "routine" Soviet experiment, Chernobyl's radiation-soaked "dead zone" is not looking so dead after all.
Postscript: The implicit assumption behind Levitt's theory is that firms should at all times try to grow or at least survive. At the same time, I think he would argue that firms should try and maximize shareholder value. I think John's thesis is based on the contradiction between the two.
Penn Central could have taken to the skies, and the buggy whip manufacturers might have made air filters, but there is no reason to think that they would have been any good at these activities: no reason to think that they would have performed better than any other firm which saw airlines or automobile components as a new market opportunity.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Saturday, August 23, 2008
and last year
Anyone else get the feeling that Ben's more worried about the entire financial system than about mere mortgages? Me too.HT: Brad DeLong
The points in the image below represent every possible nine-letter combination of the DNA letters A, T, C, and G. The arcs represent sequences in the fruit fly, mouse, and human.
The chessboard represents a chess program actually working out its next move. I tried the original program and it is amazing to view.
And this masterpiece of abstract art represents US population data by county in the years 1790-2000
Short version: an accelerating charge radiates. So if you let an electron fall in a gravitational field, it should radiate. But a person (or detector) falling along beside it does not perceive the electron as accelerating and so the electron shouldn't radiate in their frame. How to reconcile the perspectives?Commenter Alex Besogonov says that the answer may be the Unruh effect.
Friday, August 22, 2008
He said: Will you bargain with me now?I read the comments, and the poem made great sense.
I said: For what would you bargain
In this grave?
He said: Over my share and your share of this common grave
I said: Of what use is that?
Time has passed us by,
Our fate is an exception to the rule
Here lie a killer and the killed, asleep in one hole
And it remains for another poet to write the end of the script.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
He was inspired by this chart in the New York Times, showing Usain Bolt's new 200-meter record, relative to the 250 greatest 200-meter sprints ever. Bolt is the extreme outlier to the left.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
He starts with the question:
What is the goal of the limited liability, joint-stock company, the core institution of the contemporary capitalist economy?Back in school, I learnt that the goal is to maximize shareholder value. I remain convinced that this goal makes sense, but this piece has made me think. The mechanism which supposedly compels managers to maximize shareholder value is the market for corporate control, but what is the effect of such a market on behavior within a firm?
First, there may be some sense in which "firms" wish to maximize shareholder value, but people work for other reasons
Committed workers in successful companies do not work in order to maximize shareholder value or even to earn the largest possible living. Indeed, it is impossible to direct most companies solely by the goal of profit-maximizationIf people are not willing to give their all for the shareholder, how can a firm get its employees to perform?
The salient characteristic of the contracts inside the firm (that is between the company, its employees and, quite often, its suppliers and even distributors) is that they are relational. That is to say, they cannot be written down in any precise form. Companies are hierarchies in which people engage voluntarily. They necessarily work on the basis of trust in what is often a very long-term relationship: I work extra hard to meet a deadline now, in return for consideration when I need to look after my elderly mother later on. For many companies, trustworthiness is an essential ingredient in their long-term success.Knowing what an employee is capable of takes time - an employee who moves from job to job or firm to firm remains an unknown quantity - and performance usually requires you to work in a team. Simply increasing incentives may have perverse effects.
So what is the effect of an active market for corporate control on the "implicit contracts" within an organization?
if companies can be freely bought and sold, relational contracts, which depend on continuing interaction among specific people inside the business, are hardly worth the paper they are (not) written on. Rational employees will act opportunistically, because they will always expect their company to do the same. The longer and more reliable relationships are expected to be, the less likely such opportunistic behaviour is to emergeHence
capital-market arrangements (and associated views of the firm) that enforce shareholder value maximization may (I stress “may”) make companies work less efficiently than otherwise, in terms of their primary role, by precluding (or at least making far more difficult) a range of potentially valuable relational contracts inside the firm.I wonder if there is something about the location of London- stuck between the US and Europe- which makes it less inclined to dogmatism than either.
Postscript: This is exactly why this, while fascinating, seems so Marxist. It hearkens back to a time when productivity was easy to measure because what was produced was tangible. and there were no long lead times between effort and output. Today, productivity is a much vaguer concept. If your designer or software developer is staring into space, he could be planning his next vacation or could be about to generate a breakthrough idea for you. Marx was a product of his time of "dark, satanic mills".
They contribute nothing of value to the competitive strengths of the firm, enjoy the benefits of limited liability and are well able to diversify the risks they run. They are merely an (ever-shifting) group of people with a claim to the residual incomes. Those with the biggest (undiversifiable) investment in the firm -- and thus the greatest exposure to firm-specific risks -- are not shareholders, but core workers. The interests of the latter are, therefore, paramountwhile Chris Dillow argues beautifully that employee-ownership is appropriate because employees control the one truly scarce resource. For bonus points, he also points out the conditions where co-ops may not make sense, and these include
physical capital-intensive firms where worker effort can be monitored. Here, the key to success is getting machinery to run well, rather than getting workers to do well. Car plants, for example, are better run by capitalists, not workersAn example of the benefits of knowing economics theory. Nuance comes easily.
That means if you have Osama bin Laden standing in the middle of the Pakistan Cute Children and Puppies Convention, he can't be hit with a missile without causing innocent lives to be lost. But if you have a C-130 with a chemical laser in the nose, you can turn him into charcoal in a flash of light, without any damage other than some shocked and awed little kids.from this new Physics blog: Built on Facts
HT: Tyler Cowen
Monday, August 18, 2008
Stage one was SETI@Home: use spare processing capacity on the desktops of the aam junta to process raw data.
In June, the Economist reported that astronomers have started to make their data freely available to amateurs, who can try to scoop the professionals.
Now, Geekpress reports that historians have implemented a clever technique to augment the technology used to scan old documents- use CAPTCHAs to get users of websites to arbitrate on words which the machines don't recognize.
Afterthought: Dash it. isn't this what Google has been doing all along? They have outsourced the job of organizing the internet and creating nice connections between content to human-bots (also known as bloggers)
I once heard a church sermon in which the priest said that you could tell most of what you needed to know about a person from looking at their bank and credit card statements. How they prioritise their spending will tell you how they prioritise their life. So it was with companies. You looked through the numbers for very human traits such as character, resilience, or imagination.Another point of the post, though, seems to be that few people who do an MBA actually get a chance to change their industry. Surprise, surprise: almost anyone can get into a consulting organization or a bank, but other industries seem to expect their recruits to actually know something about their business.
there is one sparkling example of career reinvention in the shape of a woman who ditched her investment bank to take a lower-paid job with a fashion house
Saturday, August 16, 2008
it would somehow become cool for people to read booksSince the article he links to refers to Orwell, I thought I would quote Orwell's essay on the topic.
But if my estimate is anywhere near right, it is not a proud record for a country which is nearly 100 per cent literate and where the ordinary man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood. And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.Postcript: Amit, congratulations.
Bandiera and her colleagues proposed a different way of adjusting the piece rate – one that workers could not influence with a collective go-slow – and measured the result. By the time the experiment was over, Farmer Smith’s initial scepticism had long evaporated: the new pay scheme increased productivity (kilograms of fruit per worker per hour) by about 50 per cent.And
The researchers responded by linking managers’ pay to the daily harvest. The result was that managers started favouring the best workers, rather than their own friends, and productivity rose by another 20 per cent.And
They proposed a “tournament” scheme in which workers were allowed to sort themselves into teams. Initially, friends tended to group themselves together, but as the economists began to publish league tables, and then hand out prizes to the most productive teams, that changed. Again, workers prioritised money over social ties, abandoning groups of friends to ally themselves with the most productive co-workers who would accept them. In practice that meant that the fastest workers clustered together, and again, productivity soared – by yet another 20 per cent.Without taking sides, the article has a powerful Marxist tinge to it. On the one hand, the relentless increases in output. As the manifesto puts it:
The bourgeoisie..has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals..The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.and on the other hand, the atomization of society. Again, the manifesto:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.AlienationPostscript: As a rootless cosmopolitan, I tend to be on the side of the bourgeoisie; I just like to think I am honest about the trade-offs.
Friday, August 15, 2008
The proverbial "six nines" availability (99.9999% uptime) means no more than 30 seconds downtime per year. That's really kind of ridiculous...Think of it this way: If your six nines system goes down mysteriously just once and it takes you an hour to figure out the cause and fix it, well, you've just blown your downtime budget for the next century.
After some internal discussion we all agreed that rather than imposing a statistically meaningless measurement and hoping that the mere measurement of something meaningless would cause it to get better, what we really needed was a process of continuous improvement. Instead of setting up a SLA for our customers, we set up a blog where we would document every outage in real time, provide complete post-mortems, ask the five whys, get to the root cause, and tell our customers what we're doing to prevent that problem in the future. In this case, the change is that our internal documentation will include detailed checklists for all operational procedures in the live environment.
Our customers can look at the blog to see what caused the problems and what we're doing to make things better, and, hopefully, they can see evidence of steadily improving quality.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Another from his blog
I pretty much think that any idea in programming can also apply to statisticsimplies that Statistics is like Programming. (Hence, Programming is like Literature. QED!)
I can certainly see the point of this comment
John's strategy of debugging by deleting code is a good heuristic within almost any paradigm. I apply it to almost all my writing, actually - if a sentence reads awkwardly, I try cutting it. If the paragraph still makes sense, I probably didn't need it that muchAnd this passage from The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs also brings out the relationship between being able to write and being able to code (emphasis added)
Our design of this introductory computer-science subject reflects two major concerns. First, we want to establish the idea that a computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations but rather that it is a novel formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology. Thus, programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute. Second, we believe that the essential material to be addressed by a subject at this level is not the syntax of particular programming-language constructs, nor clever algorithms for computing particular functions efficiently, nor even the mathematical analysis of algorithms and the foundations of computing, but rather the techniques used to control the intellectual complexity of large software systems.
Our goal is that students who complete this subject should have a good feel for the elements of style and the aesthetics of programming. They should have command of the major techniques for controlling complexity in a large system. They should be capable of reading a 50-page-long program, if it is written in an exemplary style. They should know what not to read, and what they need not understand at any moment. They should feel secure about modifying a program, retaining the spirit and style of the original author.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Shlemiel gets a job as a street painter, painting the dotted lines down the middle of the road. On the first day he takes a can of paint out to the road and finishes 300 yards of the road. "That's pretty good!" says his boss, "you're a fast worker!" and pays him a kopeck.
The next day Shlemiel only gets 150 yards done. "Well, that's not nearly as good as yesterday, but you're still a fast worker. 150 yards is respectable," and pays him a kopeck.
The next day Shlemiel paints 30 yards of the road. "Only 30!" shouts his boss. "That's unacceptable! On the first day you did ten times that much work! What's going on?"
"I can't help it," says Shlemiel. "Every day I get farther and farther away from the paint can!"
To be conservative... a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone. What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity: not, Verweile doch, du bist so schon, but Stay with me because I am attached to you.
it asserts itself characteristically when there is much to be enjoyed, and it will be strongest when this is combined with evident risk of loss. In short, it is a disposition appropriate to a man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for; a man in some degree rich in opportunities for enjoyment, but not so rich that he can afford to be indifferent to loss. It will appear more naturally in the old than in the young, not because the old are more sensitive to loss but because they are apt to be more fully aware of the resources of their world and therefore less likely to find them inadequate
"The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door and immediately another, whilst he is within is safe from the wintry but after a short space of fair weather he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space but of what went before or what is to follow we are ignorant."
Incursions upon freedom are very often motivated by egoism - the egotistical belief of our rulers that they can improve things by restricting our liberty. My support for freedom is founded upon a denial of this.
In this context, we should distinguish two different defences of freedom. Very crudely speaking, we might call them the Smith/Mill defence and the Hayek/Oakeshott defence.
The first says people should be left alone because when individuals pursue their own egotistical drives, society benefits.
The second says they should be left alone because no-one can foresee the consequences of intervention, and so no-one has the intellectual resources to justify restricting liberty.
The cult of personality that surrounded Mao was an even greater - and therefore more mistaken - assertion of individual ego than the cult that surrounded Jack Welch
My suspicion is that death or the prospect of death, real or imagined, has very little to tell us about the office at all. We all have to work. We all have to die. Thinking about the second does not change the reality of the first.
I had a friend who died not long ago of cancer. He went on working until two weeks before he died, not because he was expressing a deathbed view on work/life balance, but because work was part of his life. For as long as he was physically capable, he wanted to go on leading his life in just the same way as he had before he was ill. He had discovered something about life: the best way of living it is not to think of death at all.
Sir Josiah Stamp, a founder of economic statistics, observed that “the government are very keen on amassing statistics – they collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But what you must never forget is that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn well pleases.”
Sunday, August 10, 2008
showed a bunch of data on itinerant fruit vendors (all women) in India. 69% of them are constantly in debt to money lenders who charge 5% per day interest. The fruit ladies make 10% per day profit, so half their income goes to the money lender. They also typically buy a couple cups of tea per day. Sendhil shows that 1 cup of tea per day less would let them be debt free in 30 days, doubling their income. 31% of these women have figured that out, so it is not impossible. Why don't the rest get there?There are different kinds of poverty
very busy people are exactly like these poor fruit vendors. If you have very little time, it is scarce and you are as time-poor as the fruit ladies are cash-poor. So, you act like there is a high discount—and you commit to future events—like agreeing to travel and give a talk. Then as the time approaches, you tend to regret it and ask "why did I agree to this?"
The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation.Adam Smith TOMS
Postscript: I was amazed to see that the movie was part produced by the BBC and was funded by the UK Film Council.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
Friday, August 08, 2008
He opted for more time with his family, rather than follow in the footsteps of the “Goldman Sachs executive who came to talk about leadership and values…I just remember this look of total defeat on his face when he said how he had four ex-wives.”
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Black holes are much, much colder than their surroundings in space. That means heat flows from the surrounding space into the black hole. If we wait for a long, long time, the universe will expand, it'll cool, and eventually empty space will become colder than the black holes. When that happens, they will start to evaporate. But don't hold your breath.
this summer’s bumper edition of the Harvard Business Review contains an article promising to reveal “a powerful new model” for employee motivation. Drawing on the latest research into how the brain works, the article’s authors (Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee) argue that employee motivation depends on four key elements, or “drivers”: the drive to acquire (rewards and experiences), the drive to bond (building a sense of belonging), the drive to comprehend (work must be meaningful) and the drive to defend (fair play for all).
Managers cannot afford to slip up on any one of these four drivers, the article says. The authors’ research into different organisations showed “if employees detected that a manager was substantially worse than her peers in fulfilling even just one drive, they rated that manager poorly”.
The authors’ four drivers seem plausible enough at first sight. But how much do they add to what we already knew about motivation? How much do they differ, for example, from the motivational needs theory of David McClelland – not mentioned in the article – which date back to his 1961 book The Achieving Society?
McClelland, a psychologist, argued that people at work experience three basic needs in varying degrees: the need for achievement, the need for authority and power, and the need for affiliation. If you want to have motivated staff, take the trouble to find out what is important to them and, crucially, don’t put them in jobs that do not suit them.
Achievement-oriented colleagues need regular feedback, and a sense that progress is being made. But those who seek affiliation are the vital team players who can help bind groups of people together.
In fact, there was probably no need for HBR to publish the new article on motivation at all, considering that they could simply have reproduced what is still one of the most widely read HBR articles ever – “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, by another American psychologist, Frederick Herzberg, which was first published in 1968.
Herzberg argued that motivation really has to come from within. It cannot be willed by managers – although thoughtless acts can certainly help destroy people’s motivation.
There are the so-called “hygiene factors” at work – the office environment, or pay levels – but these do not truly motivate.
What really motivates people are their sense of achievement, recognition for their work, the work itself, responsibility, advancement and personal growth. Herzberg called for “job enrichment”: trying to make sure that people had interesting work to do.
If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can change a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it
This data would not surprise EL Kersten, co-founder of the subversive US company Despair, Inc. In his slippery and ironic book, The Art of Demotivation, Kersten argues that all corporate attempts to boost employee motivation are not merely doomed to fail, but are in fact counter-productive.
Since all that expenditure – on consultants, culture-change programmes, away days and longer off-site trips – seems to produce no positive effects, indeed serves mainly to further demotivate staff, Kersten says, why not save your money and set out deliberately to demotivate your employees in the first place? Make them feel small, but at a fraction of the cost.
Monday, August 04, 2008
what we have done so far is only count the kind of experience that men also have. What we need to be able to do is count all human experience. So I would like to count the secretarial positions as good training places to take over the jobs of the bosses
From the FT's interview with Gloria Steinem
“Men don’t raise children as much as women do,” she says. “This is the understatement of all time. That will change, eventually. Corporations frequently punish men who even leave early or leave on time, you know, to go to their kid’s soccer match.”
Bryan Caplan on why men do less housework.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
There was a point in the middle where I almost wept from irritation, as they unleashed every sentimental cliche you could imagine, but then came a wonderful pastiche of "2001: a space odyssey", and everything was forgiven.
Once you accept that this is meant to be irony, its very, very funny.
Addendum: there are many wonderful passages: the opening sequence, where we see what appear to be trees, and then gigantic termite mounds, but are neither, the bit where Wall-e rocks himself to sleep, but the very best part of the whole evening was a short which they showed before the movie: Presto.
Friday, August 01, 2008
IN 1993, Bill Clinton was pondering whether to authorise what is now called an “extraordinary rendition”, when American agents snatch a suspected terrorist abroad and deliver him to interrogators in a third country. The White House counsel warned that this would be illegal. President Clinton was in two minds until Al Gore walked in, laughed and said: “That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”