Thoughts on Technology and Business
I listened to an NPR story last week about how Amazon patents trivial and obvious features on their site to force people to have a poor experience on other sites. Things like the One-Click Checkout button. Jeff Bezos has a strategy of competing with a thousand micro improvements to be better than their competition. Every advantage they can take, they take it, squeezing out other players.
But what happens when they’re just wrong? What happens when I’m having a poor experience with Amazon? Well, I move on to other sites, quietly.
My children have been getting ready for science fair again this year.
My daughter studied plastic last year. She’s nine, but she can recite how plastics are made, the different types of plastics, their effects on the environment. She made some toys out of casein plastic from milk. I don’t know what she’ll be doing this year.
One son is interested in aquatic environments and pollution. He was a grand champion in the fair last year for studying the effects of heavy metals in aquatic environments. This year he’s interested in understanding ways to clean aquatic environments from heavy metals.
Another son is interested in engineering cyber-physical systems. He’s been learning how to use the Raspberry Pi and interact with a dog with it. He’s also been studying classical conditioning and trying to figure out if he could enhance a pet’s life with inexpensive electronics.
They’re all doing great. I’ve asked them to work on a few chapters from a college text book on the design and analysis of experiments. They’re taking it slow, defining terms, asking questions and teaching each other what they’re learning. They’re learning about bias and different types of experiment design that help avoid some kinds of bias. They’re learning to think about their thinking.
I encourage science fair every year because it’s a collaboration with adults. They are invited to work with adults on things that are important to them, explain how far they’ve come, subject themselves to scrutiny. They don’t have limits with this kind of project. They can go as far as they have time and interest. They’re doing work that I’d be proud of at my age.
As I think about life ten years from now, I imagine we’ll have an ever-greater need to think clearly and deliver innovative results. I think we’ll all need to know how to collaborate on projects that we care about, subjecting ourselves to scrutiny, and hopefully building a better future together. Hopefully I can do this with the kind of wonder and excitement we see in the science fair.
I sat on a plane last week next to a neurosurgeon. I almost never speak with people on the plane, but it was a red-eye flight, and I was punchy. We spoke about the kind of training a neurosurgeon goes through. For him, it wasn’t just medical school, a residency and a specialty. He also underwent sub-specialty training to focus on dealing with particular cancers. He is a dedicated man that’s spent an incredible amount of time learning everything he can about how our brains work and what he can do to help out when things go wrong.
In about a decade, the world’s fastest computer may be able to simulate the activity of the human brain. Right now, the K computer was able to simulate about 1% of 1 second of the brains compute capacity in 40 minutes using the open-source NEST program. That won’t mean we will have the capacity to comprehend the complexity of the brain yet, but it will mean that we will have the power to simulate it.
Researchers will be able to produce a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space….this picture will fill major gaps in our current knowledge and provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.
That is, the BRAIN Initiative (and the Human Brain Project out of Europe) are working on how the brain works, the NEST program is seeking to simulate the power of the brain.
I don’t know if reasonable models of how the brain works could be integrated with the power of these systems within two or three decades, but I imagine we’ll get this moving along within my lifetime, roughly. We’ll have the capacity to simulate a complete brain in some rough-shod fashion.
The Supreme Court ruled today on Hollingsworth v. Perry:
After the two same-sex couples filed their challenge to Proposition 8 in federal court in California, the California government officials who would normally have defended the law in court, declined to do so. So the proponents of Proposition 8 stepped in to defend the law, and the California Supreme Court (in response to a request by the lower court) ruled that they could do so under state law. But today the Supreme Court held that the proponents do not have the legal right to defend the law in court. As a result, it held, the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the intermediate appellate court, has no legal force, and it sent the case back to that court with instructions for it to dismiss the case.
I don’t think I have a problem with the result of today’s decision. It seems proper for the Supreme Court to decide this. However, I think I lost a little of my innocence about how democracy works today.
It feels like something other than the voice of the people are winning more and more in America. That is, my vote counts less and less because the DA won’t uphold the people’s voice, or special interests are allowed to inject billions into our electoral process or simply that our votes are averaged out in an electoral college.
I don’t think that government should be in our bedrooms. I don’t think that government should be doing many of the things it is doing. But, I do think that government should be doing their jobs, despite their personal beliefs.
Put another way, what do I have to do to change things in America? Vote? Show up to council meetings? Write my opinion for public forums? Organize a phone tree? Donate to the political process? Create a shadow coalition? Control the DAs office, a whole political party, the White House and Legislature? How much power really has to be amassed before I have influence? If the voice of the people can’t guide this government, then what kind of government do we have?
I’ve almost talked myself out of this post. It’s a lot of self-disclosure. However, I’m going to try and put on my big-boy pants and realize this might be useful to other people.
A lot of us build up a persona. We want to be thought of as smart, competent professionals. We do a lot to support this: our blog posts, open-source contributions, public speaking, participation in local users groups. Not all of this has ulterior motives. It’s a lot of fun to build worthwhile things, to collaborate with smart people.
But let’s be clear. The smartest of us have dumb days. The more I get to know highly-respected people, the more I see them as human, like me. They are still laudable, but they have their quirks, their weaknesses and blind spots.
So do I.
The trouble with Seven Databases in Seven Weeks is that it’s a bit of a playground. Ostensibly, it’s about becoming a well-rounded developer. That probably works, if you push through this in seven weeks. I’ve been picking it up more for fun than for progress. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I have been bugged by the TV commercials 5-Hour Energy has been running during the Olympics. I was first irked by how many factors they threw into a 30-second commercial. I was then irked by how much fine print they slapped into that commercial. They are suggesting their product is healthy, even approved by doctors.
To my eyes, it seems not unlike cigarette commercials showing doctor recommendations.
Here’s what they’re saying, in a nutshell:
- 5,000 doctors were approached in person
- 2,500 of those responded
- 73% would recommend a low-calorie energy drink if the patient is already using energy drinks and is healthy
- 56% would recommend 5-Hour Energy for those patients that already use energy drinks and are healthy
Of course, they do it with a professional-looking woman rattling off numbers next to about 15 reams of paper. The impression is a lie.
As far as I know, no doctors are saying to use energy drinks. That’s the first issue. Everything doctors actually recommend seems to be to run away from those as fast as you can. But, if you’re going to do this kind of thing, and you are healthy, you might as well take a low-calorie approach.
What if I assume the 2,500 doctors who wouldn’t participate in this kind of study would not recommend any energy drink under these conditions? Then we’re saying that about 28% of doctors would recommend using 5-hour Energy to those that are using energy drinks and are healthy. So, if they’re not recommending low-calorie energy drinks, are they recommending high-calorie energy drinks? Not likely.
Do I have to point this out? Doctors don’t want you using these things. 5-Hour Energy is the snake oil vendor of today.
Ranting about this is kind of silly. Here I am, acting a generation older than I am, yelling at the TV. Sheesh! It’s just grimy business, and they invaded my living room.
OK, I’m going to confess something here. I’m terribly envious of Leigh Dodds. Maybe you have people like this in your world? Bright, effective and young? The guy has done some amazing things, and done them gracefully. Privately, I’ve referred to the ever-nagging problem of keeping sharp as the Leigh Dodds Problem. Leigh is a concrete example of someone that makes me look like a doddering old fool before my time.
When you were a kid, did you like showing off to your mom? Look, I can ride a bike! Look what I made you! Look, a bug!!
Once I took some extra housing wire, stripped the insulation off of the copper and made a ring out of it. I then wrapped the top part of it with a colorful pipe cleaner and gave it to her for her birthday. She loved it. She kept it in her jewelry box. I was so proud. I came up with that idea on my own. Well, my older brother might have helped. I don’t remember that, but he usually did back then.
When I did that, I wasn’t comparing myself to jewelers. They had gold and silver and jewels and training, I was just a kid. I was having fun. I was learning something. It worked. That was enough.
It turns out that this way of doing things is, like the best. (I’m channeling a little sister there, when she was a teenager.) Having fun, being curious, giving ourselves permission to make mistakes is how we get it done.
The other day my ex-wife was joking with me about why I choose to write code. At the end of our marriage, I was just learning Rails. It was 2005 and I was overwhelmed with too much responsibility and too little ability. I was mad, crazed even, trying to resolve issues that had overcome me. I was constantly swearing, constantly pacing. From my ex-wife’s perspective, writing software was a delirious process. From my perspective, it was one more stress in a monumentally stressful time.
A lot has happened since then. We’ve made peace, my ex and I.
I’m also making peace with the things I build. This is harder than I thought it would be. The following is a letter to anyone starting out, anyone learning a new skill, someone who has a dream and a long road in front of them.