Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Psychics and their Tricks

Posted on January 21st, 2013 in Education, Life, Technology | No Comments »

This is a particularly interesting way to introduce people to the value of their information:

Great presentation, but I’m not sure ‘tricks’ like this really educate. They don’t recommend any action at the end of this video. I suppose my recommendation would be to sign up for your free annual credit report. That’s as good a first step as is available right now.

zefrank’s Latest Show

Posted on April 11th, 2012 in Entertainment, Life | No Comments »

If you haven’t heard of zefrank, then you’re in for a treat. I don’t want to preface this with too much backstory. Just watch this, and if you like it, subscribe to his feed.

Transcript.

Remembering Steve Jobs

Posted on October 5th, 2011 in Life | No Comments »

The email I sent to rememberingsteve@apple.com:

I learned to program when I was in the first grade using an Apple IIe. I’m currently writing my doctoral dissertation on computer science using a MacBook Pro. I’m not sure what I will do after I graduate, but I can’t help but think that whatever I go on to do wouldn’t have been possible without Steve Jobs.

Thanks Steve.

Welcome Back

Posted on September 28th, 2011 in Essays, Life, Website News | 1 Comment »

Welcome faithful reader! How do I know that you’re a faithful reader of this blog? Well, because in the craziness that has been my life for the past few months, this blog disappeared and I didn’t even notice. I have rectified the problem, and it has left me with a group of lean, mean, faithful readers.

Any time you have an unplanned outage for your site, you might as well re-think what you really want to do with the site. However, I don’t really have time to do that right now, so things will probably continue mostly as they are now for the forseeable future. Currently, I write for and maintain several websites. You can read about them if you wish.

However, there is one small change that I would like to announce. As most of you know, I’m an avid reader. I read books, academic papers, news, and all sorts of other things. However, one of my favorite things to read over the last couple of years has been a great essay. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have a few theories I won’t bore you with.

Because of my growing appreciation for essays, I’ve thought about linking to some of the great essays for a long time. I’m not thinking about it any longer; I’m going to start linking to some of them in this category. Now, there are several sites out there that exist solely to aggregate longer form, essay-style writing. I won’t pass along nearly that volume of essays, so if you find that yourself loving the art of the essay, you should investigate those sites.

Today I would like to pass along an essay I read this past summer. It’s by Paul Ford and it’s titled “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It’s an extremely well-written essay about Ford’s personal experience with in-vitro fertilization, and definitely worth reading. I’m passing it along today because I’ve learned (through Daring Fireball) that there’s a short post-script on his personal site. Don’t read the post-script first. There are spoilers there that could ruin the essay for you. Enjoy!

Book: Admission

Posted on August 5th, 2011 in Books, Education, Life | No Comments »

I should have written this book review months ago since I read the book last spring. I only needed about two or three evenings to read it, and as soon as I finished, I called Allison and urged her to read it. I had that same sort of euphoria that I had immediately after watching the Transformers movie for the first time, but I wonder if re-reading the book would also produce the same sort of “what the hell was I thinking” experience produced after watching the Transformers movie for the second time. Unfortunately, as a grad student, if you read a 464 page book over two or three evenings, then your next three months are going to be busy trying to catch up on all the work you didn’t complete. Needless to say, I’ve only read the book once, and I’m only now getting around to writing the review.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz is about a Princeton University admissions officer named Portia Nathan. She begins the novel with complete faith that her role as an admissions office is critical to the success and prestige of Princeton University. Her work is demanding, perhaps brutally so, but she is clearly passionate about it. She also begins the novel in an idealized domestic relationship with a Princeton English professor, but it becomes clear early in the book that they have lost whatever passion they may have had for each other.

Portia’s romances are the main plot of the book, but they are a bit ham-fisted and read more like a soap opera than, well, some soap operas. In fact, the product description for the book uses the following phrase to describe it:

Admissions. Admission. Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.

Pretty cheesy, right? Ask anyone who knows me and you’ll find that I’m a big fan of puns, but this kind of wordplay fails to interest even me. Portia has a secret that gets “let out” over the course of the book, but I don’t have to tell you about it because it will be rather easy to guess once you start reading the book. The characters are interesting and the scenes are engaging, but the plot just doesn’t work when viewed holistically. It reads like the novel equivalent of taking a great commercial series and turning it into a complete television show.

Despite the somewhat clumsy love story, Admission does have an extremely engaging sub-plot surrounding the admissions process itself. Obviously, I am heavily biased as to whether or not this sub-plot is truly “engaging.” I’m a PhD Candidate in Computer Science at NCSU, and I’ve spent quite a lot of my life in some part of academia or another. It isn’t hard to convince me about the importance of education, and I’ve always been fascinated with attempts to measure learning, achievement, or accomplishment. Still, any one of the millions of people who have applied to college tacitly understands the idiosyncrasies, inaccuracies, and theater of this process. Although some reviews might say that the book “includes too many wooden monologues explaining in detail how [the admissions] process works,” I don’t think I’m alone in my interest for this part of the book.

Anyone who has applied to college (or has a child planning to do so) has almost certainly wondered about the admissions officers. Will someone actually read this? What are they really looking for? What will they think about my transcript, that award I won, or my extra-curricular activities? What will they think about me? For the somewhat introspective among us, applying to college can be even more brutal than the process Portia goes through to make her decisions in the book. Clichés are never more true for anyone than they are for high school senior applying to college. They are full of potential. They have their whole lives in front of them. They can be anything they want to be. Their future rests on what happens to that application.

College applicants are subject to the ultimate “fear of missing out” because of the ponderous implications of the admissions decision. The fear of missing out (FOMO, for short) has recently been described as “a crucial key to understanding social software” because:

Social media has made us even more aware of the things we are missing out on. You’re home alone, but watching your friends status updates tell of a great party happening somewhere. You are aware of more parties than ever before. And, like gym memberships, adding Bergman movies to your Netflix queue and piling up unread copies of the New Yorker, watching these feeds gives you a sense that you’re participating, not missing out, even when you are.

FOMO is also crucial to understanding college admissions for basically the same reasons. What college graduate hasn’t wondered whether or not their life would have been “better” if only they went to a “better” college? Applicants fear missing out on some unknowable future. Admissions officers fear missing out on potential future prestige for their university if they aren’t able to accurately identify the best students. Admission explores FOMO from both sides throughout the book. Each chapter of the book begins with an admissions essay excerpt from one of the students that Portia is reviewing. The essays are humorous, serious, deep, and emotional. They may be the best part of the book because they so palpably convey the fear (and vulnerability) inherent on both sides of the process. I often found myself starting a new chapter simply because I wanted to read the lead-in essay.

Unfortunately, much like the love story, the admissions process subplot has a somewhat predictable climax involving Portia’s decision on a particular application. It’s not as inevitable as the ending for the love story, but Portia’s character seems to telegraph her decision a bit. Regardless, it’s a fascinating problem, and I’m not sure what I would have done in her position.

Despite my concerns with the plot, I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in exploring college admissions or anyone interested in exploring the broader impact of important decisions on young adults. The book has been out long enough that you should be able to find a used copy online without having to shell out much cash. It’s a fun, quick read, but I wouldn’t recommend buying a new copy.

The Value of Sleep

Posted on July 3rd, 2011 in Life | No Comments »

Several recent events have prompted me to think about the value of sleep. First, I’ve been extremely busy for a prolonged period of time. You may have noticed a lack of any truly substantive post on this blog as a result. I won’t apologize for that nor will I delve into the reasons why I’ve been so busy (at least, not in this post). All I will say is that I’ve been getting less sleep than usual. Second, I attended a wedding shower with my fiancée (Yes, I am getting married!) where a friend of mine put together a video of pictures from our separate childhoods. It was a beautiful video, and he did a fantastic job putting it together. During the reception afterwards, he said to me, “Yeah, I could pretty much put my finger on the moment you stopped sleeping just by looking at all those pictures of you.” Third, I’m spending part of my Sunday afternoon cleaning my apartment and listening to TED talks. Somehow I ended up listening to two talks that focused on the importance of sleep back to back. Fourth, because I’m getting married, my fiancée and I needed to purchase a bed. It’s the last of these that eventually prompted me to write this post.

Buying something forces you to place a dollar amount on how much you value a product or service. Consider four products: cars, computers, televisions, and mattresses. Each product can be purchased at for super cheap, for super expensive, or for anywhere in between. One approach to purchasing these products is to simply purchase at the level that fits your finances. If you have a middle class income, you could simply find the middle class price for each of these items and purchase it. Another approach is to always go with the cheapest option. After all, money and ‘things’ aren’t truly eternal; you never see a U-Haul following a hearse to the graveyard. If you’re fabulously wealthy, then I suppose you could just buy the most expensive version of each of them. Though, that smacks more of ‘lottery winner’ than ‘entrepreneur’ to me.

My approach to purchasing basic products is to evaluate the importance of the functions a product provides and attempt to match that up to the level I’m willing to pay for it. For example, I live basically right next to where I work. I spend very little time in a car on a regular basis. I don’t really need a fancy car. I mostly just need to be able to get from point A to point B. This is why I own a 1997 Geo Prism. In contrast, I spend around 10-12 hours on my computer every weekday and I probably around 4-9 hours per day on it each weekend. It makes sense for me to get a top of the line computer because I know I’m going to be using it heavily. For me television equipment doesn’t get used much. I don’t own either an HD TV or a Blu-ray player.

Mattresses or beds definitely fall into the ‘important’ category. Beds support or enable sleep, which is incredibly important. I mentioned that I was listening to TED talks while cleaning this afternoon. Two of them caught my ear with clear messages about the importance of sleep, so it’s worth mentioning them here. First, I listened to Jason Fried’s talk about “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work.” It’s a great talk, and I recommend listening to the whole thing, but he makes an important comparison from work to sleep. He says that both work and sleep aren’t possible to do in slices because you really need a large block of uninterrupted time to do them. This is obviously true for sleep (though I think Fried is right that it’s equally important for work), and one important implication of that truth is that there’s real value in owning a bed that ensures you sleep more comfortably and with fewer interruptions on a regular basis. I’ve embedded his talk below:

The second talk is from Arianna Huffington, who relates the lessons she’s learned about sleep since she literally passed out from exhaustion. I won’t steal the thunder from her talk, which is just under five minutes long, but I will focus for a moment on her point that there’s a “macho” view of being able to go without sleep. We shouldn’t view going without sleep as a worthwhile end in and of itself. However, I don’t think that means there’s no value in being able to work while tired. Clearly, we’re going to have periods in our lives when we simply have to go without sleep for one reason or another. I have several friends who’ve recently had babies, and I can promise you that they find value in learning how to cope with a lot less sleep than they really need. Being able to get stuff done on less than optimal levels of sleep from time to time is both valuable and important. The problem is that we’ve come to view this as an accomplishment rather than a necessary evil.

You may be expecting me to review the bed we recently purchased, but I’m not going to do that. We just got it and no review of a bed written after a single night is really worth reading. I may do that in the future, but I can’t promise anything. I have been pretty busy, and it might just be more important for me to catch up on some sleep.

A Factor of 26

Posted on March 2nd, 2011 in Education, Life, Technology | No Comments »

Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica recently wrote an article about Cisco’s latest Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast (pdf). In it Cisco claims that worldwide mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 26 in the next four years. Obviously, Cisco is in the networking business, so they have some incentive to make the future of networking look good, but even if they are only half right, that’s a huge increase.

The most compelling piece of this story for me is summarized by two lines in the executive summary:

Average smartphone usage doubled in 2010. The average amount of traffic per smartphone in 2010 was 79 MB per month, up from 35 MB per month in 2009.

Smartphones represent only 13 percent of total global handsets in use today, but they represent over 78 percent of total global handset traffic. In 2010, the typical smartphone generated 24 times more mobile data traffic (79 MB per month) than the typical basic-feature cell phone (which generated only 3.3 MB per month of mobile data traffic).

Prior to getting an iPhone, I spent about 6 years using a simple Nokia phone. It was my primary phone, and I used it almost exclusively for phone calls. Put simply, the way I interacted with computers fundamentally changed when I got an iPhone. The best analogy I can think of is when my family bought our first home computer. I knew what computers were before getting one, and I knew how to use them to some degree. However, I didn’t realize the impact they could have on my life until the first day I spent on that home computer. I believe the same is true for anyone going from a standard phone to a smart phone. In fact, I believe this is the minimum we should predict if Cisco is right.

How many people will experience a similar transition as a result of those two points I highlighted from the executive summary of the Cisco report? Smart phones are better than computers for numerous activities, and phones are being used for an increasing number of things that were traditionally desktop-only or laptop-only. More importantly, smart phones are only 13 percent of the total mobile phone market. Add this to the fact that mobile phones are the only real connection to the Internet for much of the world, and it becomes pretty clear that we’re still at the beginning of the computer revolution.

We can (and should) also think about Cisco’s prediction in global terms, but finding the best analogy to describe the sort of change that Cisco is predicting is hard. One way to think about it is by comparing it to previous instances where practical access to education, information, and participation was granted to large populations over a short period of time. Prior to both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement in the United States, we were basically limiting our “best and brightest” to at most a third of our society. Quite simply, by limiting access to higher education and acceptance of certain races or genders in society, we limit human innovation. The digital divide is another fundamental limitation to human innovation, and bridging this divide could change the world just as much as the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement. (See also this book I read several years ago.)

Consider the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. He was born in India in 1887. His family was not particularly well-off, but given just a little access to basic information, he became a world-renown mathematician. Here’s Wikipedia:

By age 11, he had exhausted the mathematical knowledge of two college students who were lodgers at his home. He was later lent a book on advanced trigonometry written by S. L. Loney. He completely mastered this book by the age of 13 and discovered sophisticated theorems on his own.

By 14, he was receiving merit certificates and academic awards which continued throughout his school career and also assisted the school in the logistics of assigning its 1200 students (each with their own needs) to its 35-odd teachers. He completed mathematical exams in half the allotted time, and showed a familiarity with infinite series.

When he was 16, Ramanujan came across the book A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics by George S. Carr. This book was a collection of 5000 theorems, and it introduced Ramanujan to the world of mathematics. The next year, he had independently developed and investigated the Bernoulli numbers and had calculated Euler’s constant up to 15 decimal places. His peers of the time commented that they “rarely understood him” and “stood in respectful awe” of him.

Obviously, not everyone can be a mathematical genius or even a genius of any kind, but the fact remains that there are many people in the world who currently never even have a chance to be one simply because they don’t have access. This could change rapidly if Cisco’s prediction turns out to be accurate. Here’s another fascinating tidbit from the report:

There are 48 million people in the world who have mobile phones, even though they do not have electricity at home. The mobile network has extended beyond the boundaries of the power grid.

This might be even more stunning than the prediction that mobile data traffic will increase by a factor of 26 in the next four years. Cicso discusses this further later in the report:

One of the most astonishing developments of the past few years has been the extension of mobile services even beyond the boundaries of the power grid. Mobile phones are reaching every corner of the earth. There are already 32 countries where mobile data has broken the electricity barrier. By the end of 2011, this effect will be visible at the regional level, when the total number of mobile users in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia exceeds the total on-grid population in those regions. By the end of 2013, the number of mobile users in the Middle East will exceed the Middle Eastern on-grid population, and by 2015 the number of mobile users in South Asia (India and surrounding countries) will exceed the South Asian on-grid population.

Thinking of this dramatic change in terms of the absolute best and the brightest may not the best way to frame the debate. It is probably better to think about how this growth in mobile data traffic could affect the ‘average’ person in the world. In 2006, only about 27% of the people in the United States had a college education. To many Americans, this seems extremely low. To much of the rest of the world, it seems like an unattainable pipe dream. Now, there’s a lot that’s wrong with using this metric as an absolute goal because a college education isn’t an end in and of itself; it’s a means to an end. Still, education is extremely important to society. What would it look like for the average person on the planet to have access to higher education materials? Even if they never end up getting a piece of paper to hang on the wall, simply having access to the information itself would dramatically change lives.

In 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted a multi-lateral treaty called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This treaty attempted to establish education as a ‘right’ of humanity. Sounds great on paper, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to see everyone have every educational opportunity they desire? In reality though, education isn’t a right; it’s an economic good. It costs both time and money. Simply saying education should be viewed as a right in a treaty doesn’t change economic reality. One amazing potential result of Cisco’s prediction is that education could become a lot less expensive for a huge number of people on the planet. An increase in mobile communications by a factor of 26 in the next four years would do more for education than the UN’s treaty did in the last four decades.

Genuine political freedom may also become a lot less expensive. I haven’t seen a great article about this yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to an in-depth analysis of how communications technology impacted the recent protests and revolutions in Northern Africa. It clearly played a critical role, and I’m not sure we fully understand the implications of this yet. Furthermore, we must understand what this means if we’re to predict how the sort of increase in mobile communications that Cisco predicts would change the world. How much of the world would be able to organize relatively peaceful revolutions away from authoritarian leaders and towards a more free and open society four years from now? I’m not qualified to make this prediction, but it’s another possible result.

If Cisco is right about mobile data traffic exploding by a factor of 26 in the next four years, then can we really even begin to make predictions with even a remote chance at accuracy? I don’t think we can. The best we can do is be optimistic about the future, and I think we have a lot of reason to be optimistic.

Still At The Beginning

Posted on November 30th, 2010 in Life, Politics and Law, Technology | 1 Comment »

We’ve reached the time of year when people start reflecting on the recent past. The latest issue of Time Magazine looks at the past decade. Pogue’s latest piece reflects on his 10 years at the NY Times. I love this sort of introspection, and I’m looking forward to seeing more over the next two months. Still, when we read things like this, we would do well to consider that we’re still very near the beginning of the computer revolution.

What does it mean to still be at the beginning? No one completely knows what this means because we can’t predict the future. Pogue’s piece does a nice job of pointing out some trends that are likely to continue in the future, but I think the best description of the future that I’ve seen lies in a RailsConf talk by Gary Vaynerchuk:

I can’t summarize Vaynerchuk’s talk because it’s about half Q&A and half completely rambled together. He starts out by giving some of his background, which is quite interesting, and he ends up talking extensively about the future of technology and business. He’s extremely energetic, genuinely humorous, and despite the talk being held at a technical conference, there’s no technobabble because Vaynerchuk isn’t a technologist. I suppose I should also warn you that there’s some language in here that the FCC would not approve for TV. Luckily, YouTube doesn’t care, or about half of this talk would be bleeped out.

I do want to talk about two things Vaynerchuck gets dead right in his talk. First, he’s optimistic about the future of technology. If you’re not familiar with the concept of an Internet optimist or an Internet pessimist, here are a couple paragraphs from Adam Thierer introducing the concepts:

The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

Clearly, there are negative sides to both of these positions. Thierer promotes a pragmatic optimism for Internet technologies, which is a sort of middle ground that generally sides with the optimistic view, but doesn’t buy into the fringe arguments on both sides. Vaynerchuk sides with the optimists in his talk, and the optimistic view makes the most sense to me, particularly in light of the past decade or so. How much has new technology changed your life in the last ten years? And how much of that change was for the better? If your answer is “most,” then you too are on the path to Internet optimism.

The second thing that Vaynerchuk nails in his talk is the recognition that the skills of a small town three generations ago are more likely to succeed in the future being brought about by new technologies. As he puts it, the skillset of our great grandparents’ generation may actually be more important to success than the skillset of our parents’ generation. The organizations that succeed will be the ones that clearly and genuinely care about the people with whom they are working. This is already happening in business (as Vaynerchuk indicates), but it will happen in every area of our lives.

One important reason the skills to succeeding are changing is, as Vaynerchuk repeats throughout his talk, that “the truth is undefeated.” The truth will only become more important in the future of technology. Technologies are making it impossible to cover up how you really feel. For businesses, this means (in part) that slick advertising alone won’t work; they actually have to develop a product worth buying. For governments, the future looks more like honest transparency than WikiLeaks, but there’s still a lot to do before we get to the sort of future possible even if we were limited to existing technology. For individuals, the picture is even more complicated. Technology is impacting some fundamental social constructs, like privacy and identity. Maybe Wheaton’s Law has been right all these years: “Don’t be a dick” because the truth will eventually become widespread.

As much as I enjoy reflecting on the past, Vaynerchuk’s thoughts on the future are excellent YouTube viewing. The future is going to be awesome in ways that we can’t really envision right now. We’re still at the beginning.

Book: Rework

Posted on October 5th, 2010 in Books, Education, Life | No Comments »

Rework
Creative Commons License photo credit: mathieuthouvenin

Rework is a bit outside my normal reading since I’m an academic and not currently in business, but given the amount of buzz this book has garnered, I couldn’t ignore it. It was compiled by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson based on their experiences running 37signals. You may know these folks from popular products like Basecamp or Campfire. You may also know David as DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails.

The book itself is a set of short, contrarian essays on business topics, and I should stress both the ‘short’ and the ‘contrarian’ parts of that description. Many of the essays are adapted, refined, and edited from Signal vs. Noise, the popular blog at 37signals. If you’re wondering whether you should spend your money on something that’s basically already published online, I understand where you’re coming from. It’s nice to have everything in a single, canonical place though.

Reading a book is contextually different than reading a blog, but this is surely the most blog-like book that I’ve ever read. The chapters are extremely short, well-written, and each comes with a reinforcing illustration. These illustrations serve as a somewhat functional, if sometimes jarring, transition from one idea to another. If you’re an avid book reader, I think you’ll find it difficult to get into any sort of reading rhythm simply because this book doesn’t really read like a book, which is probably intended. Having said all that, the chapters are clear and direct. If you read it as if it were a paper-based blog, then you’ll pick up one unmistakably clear and easily understood business idea at a time.

For all it’s faults as a book, Rework is filled with the unconventional business wisdom that makes Signal vs. Noise a popular blog. I wish this wisdom were more conventional. Most businesses (and most business books) are geared towards the ultimate goal of becoming multi-billion dollar empires. Rework shows over and over again just how idiotic that fallacy (and all the crap that it entails) is for actually running your own business. It’s geared towards small business owners and entrepreneurs that want to make a living doing what they love. Jason Fried and DHH are quick to point out that this humble goal is often overlooked. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to do something they genuinely love to do?

If you take the idea of making a living by doing something you love seriously and you don’t mind reading a book that feels more like a blog than anything else you’ve ever seen in paper, then I would highly recommend Rework. If you’re still on the fence, check out some of the popular posts on Signal vs. Noise.

John Wooded on TED

Posted on June 15th, 2010 in Education, Life, Sports | No Comments »

I know this is a rather popular TED Talk that has gotten a lot of links online since John Wooden’s death ten days ago. I am getting it from Michael Graham at Modern Pensées, who got it from The Evangelical Outpost, who probably got it from somewhere else. Regardless, John Wooden was an unbelievable coach, teacher, and Boilermaker. This is a must watch. It’s only about 18 minutes long, so you should be able to fit it in somewhere today.