Monday, September 30, 2013

Replacing Street Lights With Glowing Trees

How many do-it-yourself bioengineering enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? Apparently 8,433. That’s how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter earlier this year.

Spearheaded by two biologists and a former Bain & Company management consultant, the Glowing Plant Project has at least two goals. Long-term: creating trees that glow so powerfully through bioluminescence that they can function as street lights. Short-term: promoting grassroots innovation within the realm of synthetic biology. You no longer have to be Monsanto to hack Mother Nature.

Things sped up last year after former Bain consultant Antony Evans watched biologist Omri Amirav-Drory give a presentation on the possibilities of using living organisms to produce energy, fuel, plastics, and fertilizers. Evans was inspired by Amirav-Drory’s suggestion that armchair tinkerers, utilizing sophisticated but easy-to-use software and a “biological app store,” might one day assemble the genetic material for producing a “renewable, self-assembled, solar-powered, sustainable street-lamp”—in other words, a bioluminescent oak tree.

Glowing trees are “a very simple idea,” Evans told me in a phone interview. “People have seen it in Avatar.” With its paradigm-shifting sci-fi environmentalism and eye-catching visuals, turning plants into mood lighting is also the sort of project that seems genetically engineered for the highly viral domain of online fund raising. “We were thinking Kickstarter right from the beginning,” Evans said. “We knew we needed money and that seemed like a good way to raise it.”

- More Here

Nate Silver on Teaching Yourself Statistics

HBR: If I’m an average professional or an executive, I’ve read your book, I know this stuff matters and I also know it’s complicated and I can only expect so much. Is there such a thing as kind of a level of statistical literacy that I need to get to? What kind of education do I have to go back and make sure that I have?

Silver:  I think the best training is almost always going to be hands on training. In some ways the book is fairly abstract, partly because you’re trying to look at a lot of different fields. You’re trying not to make crazy generalizations across too many spheres.
But my experience is all working with baseball data, or learning game theory because you want to be better at poker, right? Or [you] want to build better election models because you’re curious and you think the current products out there aren’t as strong as they could be.  So, getting your hands dirty with the data set is, I think, far and away better than spending too much time doing reading and so forth.

HBR: What about if I’ve read your book and I’m just starting college or a little younger and I’m trying to think actually maybe this statistician/data scientist role is something that I’m interested in? What do I study? How much education do I need? What’s that base for plugging into some of these jobs?

Silver:  Again, I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.

But it really is something that requires a lot of different parts of your brain. I mean the thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.

That stuff is kind of hard to teach through book learning. So it’s by experience. I would be an advocate if you’re going to have an education, then have it be a pretty diverse education so you’re flexing lots of different muscles.

You can learn the technical skills later on, and you’ll be more motivated to learn more of the technical skills when you have some problem you’re trying to solve or some financial incentive to do so. So, I think not specializing too early is important.

- Rest of interview here with Nate Sliver, author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don't

Quote of the Day

Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.

-  Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Genetically Engineering the Wild

In Nature today, a group of conservation biologists take this conversation much further. They report on a meeting they had this spring in New Mexico to discuss how the changing climate will push some species towards extinction and what can be done about it.

For a few years now, some conservation biologists have argued that we should move species to places where they’re more likely to survive. If Florida is too hot in 50 years for a tree to survive, move the tree to Virginia.

But what if we were to move genes instead? That’s the question that the scientists at the New Mexico meeting considered.

Their conversation was based on the fact that animals and plants have evolved genes that adapt them to their environments. As trees move into drought-stricken plains, natural selection may favor genes that help them conserve their water. When pathogens emerge, natural selection may favor genes that make hosts resistant. If Florida is going to become more like, say, Brazil, then maybe genes from Brazil will help species survive in Florida. (As for what genes we might give the species in Brazil…well, that’s hard to say.)

Farmers and livestock breeders have harnessed genetic variation for centuries. They’ve crossed different breeds to create a combination of traits they desire. Conservationists have sometimes used hybridization as well, to nurture endangered species.

- Carl Zimmer

Quote of the Day

The trouble with an alarm clock is that what seems sensible when you set it seems absurd when it goes off.

- Rex Stout, The Rodeo Murder

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Wisdom Of The Week

I always assumed that it's too idealistic to ask an influential politician to take a firm stance against poaching at an international stage; I guess sometimes politicians do surprise us with their noble deeds - Clinton Unites African Leaders in Her Crusade Against Poaching

We're now confronting the possibility of a world without elephants,” Chelsea Clinton said at the Clinton Global Initiative on Thursday in an introduction to a new commitment that has become Hillary Clinton's post-office cause célèbre: ending wildlife poaching. Last year alone, the practice took the lives of 35,000 elephants and more than one thousand rangers.

On stage with presidents from six African nations—Uganda, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Malawi, Cote d'Ivoire, and Tanzania—the former secretary of state made a three-year, $80 million pledge to halt the brutal killing of African elephants, which she said is on track to make the African forest elephant extinct within 10 years.

Warning of the “hidden terrible costs of ivory,” Clinton spoke about groups like al-Shabab, the perpetrators of the Nairobi mall terror attack this past weekend, that get their funding through poaching efforts. The black-market channels which ferry ivory from poachers are often the same used for illegal arms, drugs, and trafficked labor. In July, a few weeks after the White House announced a $10 million fund to combat poaching, it was reported that Clinton had been meeting with environmental groups to discuss initiatives and to unite her contacts in to help with the cause.

"We will not be the generation that allowed for the extinction of the magnificent African elephant," said Cristian Samper, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The commitment, made in partnership with the largest conservation foundations and experts like Jane Goodall and Ian Hamilton, brings together a multi-national group to enforce a moratorium on commercial exports, import, and domestic sales of ivory products until the elephant is no longer threatened by poaching. The presidents on stage with Clinton have agreed to support the effort, along with the leaders of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya, Liberia, and South Sudan.

“This has gone beyond an environmental issue; it threatens the stability of countries and blocks economic development,” said Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba. He declared that last year his country burned its entire stockpile of ivory. “My government has zero tolerance for wildlife crime,” he said.

All the largest markets for illegal ivory, from Australia to Vietnam, have jumped on board to start campaigns to spread awareness. “Many people in Asia don't understand it’s not like losing a tooth, you have to kill the elephant to get the tusk,” Clinton said

Another brilliant piece of this week - Making Juries Better: Some Ideas from Neuroeconomics:

All of that research means, ironically, that if you start with a group of individuals who have differing beliefs, and present them all with the same evidence, they’re more likely to diverge, rather than converge, on a decision. “This polarization can be really bad,” says Isabelle Brocas, an economist at the University of Southern California.

Although the psychological literature is lousy with studies of confirmation bias, nobody really knows its root cause. In an intriguing new paper, Brocas and her colleague Juan Carrillo propose an explanation based on neuroscience. The biases of juries, they say, can be explained by the way that our neurons encode information from the outside world. Their model (and let’s be clear: it’s a mathematical model, rife with assumptions) points to several recommendations for making our justice system more just.

So if the model’s true, it has several interesting implications for real-world trials. The first is related to the order in which evidence is presented. Facts or testimony presented at the beginning of a trial will be weighed more strongly in the jurors’ minds than evidence presented at the end. (And for that matter, the authors say, cases that a judge presides over at the beginning of her career will have a strong influence on those later on.)

It also means that it would be better for everybody if jurors were chosen who didn’t have strong views to begin with. “If you want to have an impartial judgment, you need to have relatively impartial people,” Brocas says.

Jury selection — the process before the trial in which both lawyers have a chance to kick out certain jurors based on their backgrounds and preferences — might be one way to get impartial people. But Brocas notes that lawyers don’t necessarily want impartial people so much as they want people who will be sympathetic with their arguments.

Quote of the Day

Social Currency: 
  • “Social Currency is about information senders and how sharing makes them look.”
  • “By acting as reminders, triggers not only get people talking, they keep them talking.”
  • “Some emotions kindle the fire more than others. As we discussed, activating emotion is the key to transmission. Physiological arousal or activation drives people to talk and share. We need to get people excited or make them laugh. We need to make them angry rather than sad. Even situations where people are active can make them more likely to pass things on to others.”
  • “Making something more observable makes it easier to imitate. Thus a key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.”
Practical Value: 
  • “People like to pass along practical, useful information. News others can use.”
  • “Offering practical value helps make things contagious.”
  • “People share practically valuable information to help others.”
  • “Stories are an important source of cultural learning that help us make sense of the world.”
  • “In trying to craft contagious content, valuable virality is critical. That means making the idea or desired benefit a key part of the narrative.”
  • “So build a Social Currency – laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan Horse, but don’t forget to hide your message inside. Make sure your desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.”
- Summary of the book Contagious – Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Friday, September 27, 2013

Kinetic Desk

All this technology and "made in the US" craftsmanship (the desktops are built in Brooklyn, and the desks are assembled outside of Nashville) doesn't come cheap. The Kinetic Desk will cost $3,890 when it launches in the first quarter of 2014, with pre-orders starting before the end of the year. You can definitely find mechanically adjustable standing desks for less, but Stir's pricing isn't out of line with premium models — and there's no doubt that it offers some unique features. Whether or not the Kinetic desk is worth its cost will depend on the software — if Stir can nail the learning mode and build a desk that truly adjust to your habits, it may have figured out how to get deskbound workers off their butts.

- More Here

Easing Doctor Burnout With Mindfulness

In one study, researchers first assessed the baseline mindfulness of 45 doctors, nurses and physician assistants by asking them to respond to statements like, “I tend to walk quickly to where I am going without paying attention to what I experience along the way,” “I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time,” and “I forget a person’s name almost as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time.” Then the investigators recorded the clinicians’ interactions with more than 400 patients and interviewed the patients to gauge their level of satisfaction.

After analyzing the audio recordings and the patients’ responses, the researchers found that patients were more satisfied and more open with the more mindful clinicians. They also discovered that more mindful clinicians tended to be more upbeat during patient interactions, more focused on the conversation and more likely to make attempts to strengthen the relationship or ferret out details of the patient’s feelings.

The less mindful clinicians, on the other hand, more frequently missed opportunities to be empathic and, in the most extreme cases, failed to pay attention at all, responding, for example, to a patient’s description of waking up in the middle of the night crying in pain with a question about a flu shot.

Significantly, the most mindful doctors remained efficient. They accomplished just as much medically for their patients as their least mindful colleagues, despite all the extra conversation with patients about experiences and relationships

“We clinicians are not always fully present for patients because our minds are always working,” said Dr. Mary Catherine Beach, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “But when we don’t listen,” failing to let patients say what they need to say or ask what they need to ask, “we end up giving explanations that are too long and complicated and responses that they don’t need or want.”

For many doctors, it’s not the lack of interest that prevents them from incorporating mindfulness into their clinical practices; it’s the time required to complete a standard training course. The courses require a significant commitment, ranging from a full week, to a full day once a week for eight weeks.

- More Here

How to Clone Yourself

Eric Sawyer explores the modern tools and techniques available to aid you in your (‘diabiological') quest to clone yourself:

Cloning is easier than you might think. If you already have a gene in mind you can look it up in a sequenced genome! Let's say you want to clone your insulin gene to see if it's any different from your friend's. In the human genome, the gene for insulin is abbreviated INS and happens to sit on chromosome 11.

The first step is to amplify the gene using a process called PCR, short for polymerase chain reaction. In PCR, short pieces of single-stranded DNA are used as primers to get the reaction going. One primer binds at the front of the gene and the other at the end. Together, they define the region of DNA your PCR reaction will copy, exponentially.

After PCR, you have a tube of DNA that is almost exclusively the INS gene. From here, you can sequence the gene directly by mailing away the INS PCR product (the routine method of DNA sequencing is very similar to PCR, requiring also one of your primers).

But say you are also interested in producing your own supply of insulin, encoded by your own personal INS gene. To do that, you need a cell that can read the instructions encoded in the INS gene to produce functional insulin protein. Luckily, all life on earth uses a shared genetic code and so a gene from one organism can be understood by any other organism. E. coli is usually the first choice, since it grows quickly and is easy to handle.

Quote of the Day

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

- Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The 3 Books Amazon's Jeff Bezos Asks His Senior Managers To Read

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
Drucker is one of the principle founders of modern management theory, helping create and broadly popularize ideas that seem commonplace now, like the fact that companies should be decentralized rather than run via command and control, and "management by objectives," where both leaders and employees work toward a set of goals they understand and agree on. This particular book focuses on how to develop the personal habits of time management and effective decision-making that allow an executive to stay productive and contribute their best to an organization.

The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
This book, first published in 1997, can safely be called one of the most influential business books of all time. Even if the term "disruption" has since been co-opted by the startup world and dramatically overused, his core theory of how businesses get disrupted is just as relevant today. New technology allows smaller companies to make cheaper products, which at first appeal only to customers at the margins. But before the largest businesses realize it, they take over entire markets.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
The last book is very different from the two previous ones. It's not a classical business book based on a series of studies of a real-world company, but is instead a novel about a manager tasked with turning around a failing manufacturing plant. It sounds strange, but it was a best-seller and has helped spawn business theories in its own right.

- More Here

Fish Fossil Has Oldest Known Face, May Influence Evolution

Scientists have found the oldest face—and it's a fish. (Not a fishface, though.)

The 419-million-year-old fish fossil could help explain when and how vertebrates, including humans, acquired our faces—suggesting a far more primitive origin for this critical feature of our success, a new study says.

"Entelognathus primordialis is one of the earliest, and certainly the most primitive, fossil fish that has the same jawbones as modern bony fishes and land vertebrates including ourselves," said study co-author Min Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

"The human jaw is quite directly connected to the jaw of this fish, and that's what makes it so interesting."
University of Oxford paleobiologist Matt Friedman, who wasn't involved in the research but penned a commentary for Nature, said the fossil boasts a jaw and face structure that's nothing like those in any other known members of Entelognathus's extinct family of primitive armored fishes, the placoderms. These creatures had simple jaws and cheeks composed of just a few large bones, Friedman explained, rather than complex arrangements of smaller bones like those found in modern bony fishes and people.

But in the new fossil, found in China's Silurian Sea, has a distinctive three-bone system still used by chewing vertebrates today: a lower jawbone called the dentary and two upper jaw bones called the premaxilla (holding the front teeth) and the maxilla (holding the canine and cheek teeth).

"The exciting thing about this fossil is that when you look at the top of it, it looks like a placoderm, but when you look at the side of the fish and the structure of the jaw, it doesn't look like any placoderm that we know of," Friedman said.

"This tends to suggest the exciting possibility that these jawbones evolved way deep down in the lineage, so these features we used to hold as being unique to bony fishes may not be so unique.” 

- More Here

Quote of the Day

“No administrative system,” Scott writes, “is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.” In the case of the Millennium Villages, this simplification was embodied by the 147-page handbook, written by academics in New York with insufficient regard for hard-won local knowledge. What Sachs failed to recognize, more than any individual research finding, is that rural Africa is thick with the wreckage of failed development projects more or less imposed by outsiders, and that Western powers have adopted new, often contradictory aid policies every decade or so, never publicly acknowledging their mistakes or owning up to the collateral damage they’ve inflicted on African lives.

- Review of the new book The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Where Have You Gone, Goldman Sachs?

Poignant piece adapted from the book What Happened to Goldman Sachs: An Insider's Story of Organizational Drift and its Unintended Consequences by Steven Mandis:

I  first met John L. in 1992, early in my time at Goldman. I was a financial analyst in M&A and was asked to make a video on the history of the department. John L. could not have been more jovial and humble. He told me that his father had once fired him in the 1950s for what seemed a minor offense -- without the proper approvals, he had committed a small amount of the firm's capital to help get a deal done for a client -- and how, lesson learned, he had groveled to get his job back. Sharing that he liked Chicago, where I was born, he advised me to work with the head of the Chicago office, Hank Paulson, because I would learn a lot from him and it would allow me to fly from New York to see more of my family, something he emphasized was important.

Goldman partners reinforced the importance of the values by their actions; they didn't need to be specifically mentioned because they were understood by watching. The way these CEOs and partners acted, dressed, and behaved reinforced unwritten norms or uncodified principles. The men at the top wore Timex watches and not Rolexes (and this is before Ironman watches were fashionable). Partners did not wear expensive suits or drive fancy cars (most drove Fords because it was such a good client and many partners got a special discount). They lived relatively modestly, considering their wealth. It was simply not in the ethos to be flashy but rather to be understated, with Midwestern restraint. The unwritten commandment to keep a low profile was not, until rather recently, violated casually.

I do not want to wax nostalgically about the good old days. I did on occasion observe vice presidents and partners acting in a way that might not be considered in the best interests of clients, though those were exceptions to the rule. For example, I was tangentially helping a team led by a vice president in selling a company, and when the final bids and contracts were due from all the potential buyers, only one buyer had submitted a bid, and the price was less than the amount our client was willing to sell for. It seemed to be a delicate situation, because we had little negotiating leverage to persuade the only potential buyer to pay more. Also, the bidder was a good client of Goldman's. However, the vice president called the sole bidder and said, "We had a number of bids" and told the bidder that to win the auction, he would have to raise his bid. I questioned him, and based on his facial expression and the tone of his response, I don't think he appreciated my inquisitiveness. He pointed out to me that he had said "a number of bids," and "in this instance, the number is one."

Pilot-less F-16 Jet Tested by Boeing & US Air Force

It carried out a series of manoeuvres including a barrel roll and a "split S" - a move in which the aircraft turns upside down before making a half loop so that it flies the right-way-up in the opposite direction. This can be used in combat to evade missile lock-ons.

Boeing said the unmanned F16 was followed by two chase planes to ensure it stayed in sight, and also contained equipment that would have allowed it to self-destruct if necessary.

The firm added that the flight attained 7Gs of acceleration but was capable of carrying out manoeuvres at 9Gs - something that might cause physical problems for a pilot.

"It flew great, everything worked great, [it] made a beautiful landing - probably one of the best landings I've ever seen," said Paul Cejas, the project's chief engineer.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously.

Brilliant piece by Samuel Scheffler the author of the forthcoming book Death and the Afterlife.

The knowledge that we and everyone we know and love will someday die does not cause most of us to lose confidence in the value of our daily activities. But the knowledge that no new people would come into existence would make many of those things seem pointless.

I think this shows that some widespread assumptions about human egoism are oversimplified at best. However self-interested or narcissistic we may be, our capacity to find purpose and value in our lives depends on what we expect to happen to others after our deaths. Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.

Similarly, I think that familiar assumptions about human individualism are oversimplified. Even though we as individuals have diverse values and goals, and even though it is up to each of us to judge what we consider to be a good or worthy life, most of us pursue our goals and seek to realize our values within a framework of belief that assumes an ongoing humanity. Remove that framework of belief, and our confidence in our values and purposes begins to erode.

There is also a lesson here for those who think that unless there is a personal afterlife, their lives lack any meaning or purpose. What is necessary to underwrite the perceived significance of what we do, it seems, is not a belief in the afterlife but rather a belief that humanity will survive, at least for a good long time.

But will humanity survive for a good long time? Although we normally assume that others will live on after we ourselves have died, we also know that there are serious threats to humanity’s survival. Not all of these threats are human-made, but some of the most pressing certainly are, like those posed by climate change and nuclear proliferation. People who worry about these problems often urge us to remember our obligations to future generations, whose fate depends so heavily on what we do today. We are obligated, they stress, not to make the earth uninhabitable or to degrade the environment in which our descendants will live.

I agree. But there is also another side to the story. Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.

The 20 Smartest Things Jeff Bezos Has Ever Said

  1. "All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you're Woolworth's."
  2. "There are two kinds of companies: Those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second."
  3. "Your margin is my opportunity."
  4. "If you only do things where you know the answer in advance, your company goes away."
  5. "We've had three big ideas at Amazon that we've stuck with for 18 years, and they're the reason we're successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient."
  6. "I very frequently get the question: 'What's going to change in the next 10 years?' And that is a very interesting question; it's a very common one. I almost never get the question: 'What's not going to change in the next 10 years?' And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two -- because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. ... [I]n our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that's going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It's impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, 'Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,' [or] 'I love Amazon; I just wish you'd deliver a little more slowly.' Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it."
  7. "If you're not stubborn, you'll give up on experiments too soon. And if you're not flexible, you'll pound your head against the wall and you won't see a different solution to a problem you're trying to solve."
  8. "Any business plan won't survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different. It will never be the plan."
  9. "In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts."
  10. "We've done price elasticity studies, and the answer is always that we should raise prices. We don't do that, because we believe -- and we have to take this as an article of faith -- that by keeping our prices very, very low, we earn trust with customers over time, and that that actually does maximize free cash flow over the long term."
  11. "The framework I found, which made the decision [to start Amazon in 1994] incredibly easy, was what I called a regret minimization framework. I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, 'OK, I'm looking back on my life. I want to minimize the number of regrets I have.' And I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed, I wouldn't regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day."
  12. "We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent."
  13. "When [competitors are] in the shower in the morning, they're thinking about how they're going to get ahead of one of their top competitors. Here in the shower, we're thinking about how we are going to invent something on behalf of a customer."
  14. "A company shouldn't get addicted to being shiny, because shiny doesn't last."
  15. "I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out."
  16. "If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you're going to double your inventiveness."
  17. "If you never want to be criticized, for goodness' sake don't do anything new."
  18. "If you're long-term oriented, customer interests and shareholder interests are aligned."
  19. "Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood. You do something that you genuinely believe in, that you have conviction about, but for a long period of time, well-meaning people may criticize that effort. When you receive criticism from well-meaning people, it pays to ask, 'Are they right?' And if they are, you need to adapt what they're doing. If they're not right, if you really have conviction that they're not right, you need to have that long-term willingness to be misunderstood. It's a key part of invention."
  20. "You want to look at what other companies are doing. It's very important not to be hermetically sealed. But you don't want to look at it as if, 'OK, we're going to copy that.' You want to look at it and say, 'That's very interesting. What can we be inspired to do as a result of that?' And then put your own unique twist on it."
- More Here

Quote of the Day

LAW 4 
Always Say Less Than Necessary

When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.

- Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Humans Live So Long

Perhaps, Finch says, the ancient gene variant that ramped up our inflammatory response and boosted the chances of our survival to the age of reproduction—APOE e4—came with a steep, deferred cost: heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer's and other chronic diseases of aging. In fact, APOE e4 appears to be a classic case of something biologists call antagonistic pleiotropy, in which a gene has a strong positive effect on the young and an adverse impact on the old. “I think these are very intriguing ideas,” says Steven Austad, a biologist and gerontologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “And what evidence we have supports them.”

- More Here

Louis CK on Smart Phones

Quote of the Day

Learning Python gives you power over computers, but being amazing at PowerPoint is how you gain control over people.

- Paul Ford, on PowerPoint

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Best & Worst Study Techniques

Highlighting doesn't work but flash cards might help:
Highlighting or underlining can be a very passive activity. You could be mindlessly underlining or highlighting while you dream of what you want to do after the test. It is a security blanket for many. But it could help if you go back to pages to restudy. When the students go back to re-study, simply re-reading the highlighted portion passively will not help. They should instead use a strategy that is more actively engaging. For instance, make flashcards using the material that has been highlighted can be highly effective.

Summarizatoin doesn't help much:
Surprising low score of one of the most commonly used strategies: Summarization.
It turns out it doesn’t have a great influence on learning. It can be effective for learners who are already skilled at summarizing. But for children, high school students and even some undergraduates, it is less feasible. Based on the research it is not a good use of time.

- More Here

A System for Autonomous Canine Guidance

This paper presents an approach for autonomous guidance of a canine using an embedded command module with vibration and tone generation capabilities and an embedded control suite. The control suite is comprised of a microprocessor, wireless radio, GPS receiver, and an attitude and heading reference system. A canine maximum effort controller was implemented for autonomous control of the canine, which proved to be effective at guiding the canine to multiple waypoints. Results from structured and non-structured environment two waypoint trials indicated a 97.7% success rate. Three waypoint trials resulted in a success rate of 70.1%, and the overall success rate of the control system was found to be 86.6%

- Full paper here and podcast here

I don't like the feel of it; military sooner or later might start using dogs for suicide missions.

Quote of the Day

From this inheritance contemporary philosophers have continued to draw profit. Parmenides is their earliest ancestor whose work contains explicit and self-conscious argumentation. The severe conceptual difficulties posed for the first time in his verses are of perennial interest, and many of them remain in the forefront of discussion today. Recent study has thus brought his thought, in the words of another critic, "astonishingly close to some contemporary preoccupations." He should be viewed not only as "the most original and important philosopher before Socrates" but as the first extant author deserving to be called a philosopher in a present-day sense of the word.

- David Gallop, in Parmenides of Elea: A text and translation with an introduction

Saturday, September 21, 2013

On Learning Animal-ness

According to a weird and fascinating new study, babies expect animals to not only exhibit certain behaviors (like intentional movements) and have particular physical features (like fur), but also to have guts. I mean that literally: Babies apparently find it odd to see an animal that’s hollow.

The researchers interpret these findings to mean that infants expect animals, in particular, to have insides, but don’t have that expectation for other objects. They say this bolsters something called the “innards principle,” first proposed by Baillargeon’s co-author, Rochel Gelman, in 1990. The innards principle says that we are born with the notion that things that move by themselves must have something inside of them to facilitate that motion.

Lots of research on toddlers and children has lent support to the innards principle. One 1995 study found, for example, that children younger than 8 expect the insides of animals to be different than the insides of machines. Kids also seem to understand that animals need their insides to function: Kindergarteners know, for example, that a dog can’t bark if it loses its insides, and that animals need to eat and drink to keep their insides working properly. The new study, though, is the first to show that an understanding of so-called “vitalistic biology” or “folk biology” appears at a very young age.

- More Here

Wisdom Of The Week

“What of itself gives us most to think about, what is most thought-provoking, is this – that we are still not thinking.”

If we are not yet thinking, what is it in us that recognizes this ’still not”, this thinking that might be but is ’still not’?  What is it in us that recognizes that we are still not thinking, that we are perhaps not yet even on the way to thinking?  What is it in us that undertakes, or perhaps does not undertake, the way to thinking?  What is it in us that would make an ideal of thinking, that would desire to learn how to think?

This recognition of thinking, this desire for thinking, this will to thinking, cannot be said to belong essentially to all human being in the world, since there are many who refuse it and who are no less human for this refusal.  It cannot even be said to belong potentially to all human being in the world, since there are many who are not even capable of thinking in this way and who are no less human for this lack.  Yet there is something, something that appears only in relation to human being in the world, something that nevertheless, in some cases, perhaps only here and there, but again and again, recognizes, and desires, and wills thinking.   What is this thing?  Though I may not yet know how to think, though I may not yet even have undertaken the way to thinking, why is it that I desire to undertake it?  Why do I want to know what is called thinking?

- Review (Part 1) of Martin Heidegger's brilliant book What is Called Thinking? (started reading it this week)

Another brilliant piece of this week was -  An Interview With Horace Dediu: On Blogging, Apple And What’s Next

Q: What’s going to be the “next big thing” for Apple? Watches, TVs, something else?

A: I segment along “jobs to be done” which are basically unstated and unmet needs. Unstated because they are usually so deep and so pervasive that they’re taken for granted. We have the need to feel good about our lives, to be healthy and to be connected in meaningful ways to others. These jobs are very poorly served by technology today and there are many non-technology products that are hired as poor proxies to help. The speed with which technology changes means that the trajectory of improvement will undoubtedly intersect that of the job. Even a small job like losing weight and eating well is probably worth as much as half the mobile phone market. Imagine if someone gives us a magic tool that does that for us. How much would you pay? How many of us would pay? There are so many next big things that I cannot choose. (By the way think of the job Facebook is hired to do: make me feel good about myself because I can show others how good I am. Boom!)

Quote of the Day

Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it also about the relation of words to other human concerns. Semantics is about the relation of words to reality—the way that speakers commit themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situations in the world.

- Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature

Friday, September 20, 2013

Interview with Peter Bevelin

This interview came out in 2007, when the third edition of Peter Bevelin's book Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger came out but it's filled with timeless wisdom !!

Q: Charlie Munger has mentioned that a great way to learn Adam Smith’s ideas is to first learn about Adam Smith. Do you believe that this idea of learning about the “teacher” before the “lesson” is truer in some disciplines than in others and do you have any examples when this method of learning was especially useful to you?-
Experiments have shown that we learn better if information is tied to a vivid story. So, I would say, it depends. In some cases the “Smith-model” is superior and in other cases I may learn better in some other fashion. For example, I learnt a lot from reading The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. But I also learnt a lot of Einstein’s ideas by reading Mr. Tompkins in Paperback by George Gamow. See also what I wrote about Reason-respecting (20 in the book). On the other hand, when reading, we must constantly watch out for the sensemaking trap (19 in my book) since we are so easily influenced when we are told stories or given information in a “story-format.”

Q: As you state in the introduction, “This book is for those who love the constant search for knowledge. I have focused on explaining timeless ideas. The number of pages I have devoted to each idea does not reflect on its importance. My goal is to lay the foundation.” Once readers acquire the foundation they receive by reading Seeking Wisdom, where should they go next? Specifically, what is the first thing that you would recommend they should pick up to start learning more about the big ideas in the discipline of Math? Psychology? Physics? Biology? Chemistry? Economics? Engineering? Philosophy?- 

Look around you – observe reality. What can explain this? Learn some core concepts that account for reality. Start from the basics for each discipline and emphasize the understanding of general principles and use simple real-life examples to illustrate principles. Read, read and think about what you have read. Look for understanding. What is going on here? What is the core idea? What is the evidence that it is right? Also remember what Richard Feynman once asked someone who remarked that he had read a book. “But, did you learn anything?” Understand an idea’s meaning and applications. Focus on useful and obviously important and correct general ideas, concepts and principles. What does it mean? What happens? What is the effect?

Taleb on Skin in the Game

One can never get tried of Taleb, yet another fascinating interview with him on Econtalk:

Russ and Taleb ponder on how our society changed in recent times to embrace no skin in the game:

So here we have a generation of people who have never had to take risks for the sake of others. And society cannot function when you have an imbalance between, like in the first column is people who make others take risks for them. And then you have in the right column people who take risks for the sake of others. It can't function that way. It cannot. You cannot have too many of the traders--and George W. Bush--who would have never taken personal risks but engaged others in a war--you can't have too many of these. We need the reverse. And we had plenty of these, as I said earlier. 
Russ: I wonder why that changed. 
Taleb: Technology. The problem is technology, is modernity is causing disruptions in the entire system. 
Russ: I don't know. I think part of it is how wealthy we are. Staying alive is definitely what we call in economics a 'normal good,' meaning we want more of it as we get wealthier. So I think we value our lives and our health a little higher than we used to, and so our willingness to sacrifice it is a lot harder. Taleb: I don't think--I think this is probably the culture. Because the change is very recent. It just took place very abruptly. 
Russ: Right, but why did that culture change? 
Taleb: look for an explanation. The thing you have to look at the world today. It's highly technological. We have dangers but not the same kind we had before. And modernity, put the bureaucrat in place of risk-taking... Now, risk-taking isn't just physical. Risk-taking is entrepreneurship. So instead of worshipping entrepreneurs, they sacrifice really for the sake of others, because of probability success is much slower than that of say venture capitalistic. So they take risks for society. And they save a lot, but collectively we need them because otherwise we can't advance. Instead of having all these people glorified and put on a pedestal, you put on a pedestal Harvard grads. That's not how a society can evolve. I used 'Harvard graduates' as a metaphor. England was built and America was built by adventurers, in the economic sense, what Adam Smith called adventurers. Not by bureaucrats. And then after on the benefits are reaped by the class of bureaucrats who come and try to control the process.

And this is my favorite part - on parenting:

Russ: It seems to me that when our children are younger, we don't want them to have skin in the game. Literally. We don't let them get near the stove--that's hot--because they'll burn their hand. And as they get older, good parenting, it seems to me, which is hard to do, means letting our children have their own skin in the game rather than the skin of the parent. Do you think that's right? 
Taleb: I think that's right. I think traditional parenting has some merits, in the sense that you protect--there is an expression in Lebanon that the first 7 years, you play with them; the second 7 years you let them get in trouble; and the third 7 years advice them on how he got in trouble. And there are 21 years. That's a Lebanese expression. The first 7 years you protect them, because they are fragile. The second 7 years are antifragile; they need to get in trouble because they never learn unless they have skin in the game. 

Quote of the Day

We look at it, and do not see it; it is invisible.
We listen to it, and do not hear it; it is inaudible.
We touch it, and do not feel it; it is intangible.
These three elude our inquiries, and hence merge into one.
Not by its rising, is it bright, nor by its sinking, is it dark.
Infinite and eternal, it cannot be defined.
It returns to nothingness.
This is the form of the formless, being in non-being.
It is nebulous and elusive.

The Science And Philosophy Behind Korea's Planned Invisible Tower

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cells Retrieved From Stratosphere Are Alien Life, Scientists Claim

British researchers say they’ve found extraterrestrial life, and they’ve got the microscopic pictures to prove it. During a recent meteor shower, the scientists sent a balloon up into the stratosphere 16 miles above the Earth’s surface and it came back with pieces of diatoms (a type of single-celled algae). Are they alive? Probably not. But do they have DNA? Looks like it!

Because the organisms were retrieved from so incredibly high up, the researchers believe they had to have come from elsewhere in the cosmos. One of the researchers, Milton Wainwright, told the Independent:

We’re very, very confident that these are biological entities originating from space.”

How certain? About 95 percent, he said, and continued,

“Life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.”

- More Here

Odd Jobs: How to Have Fun and Make Money in a Bad Economy

Forbes recommends Abigail R. Gehring's book Odd Jobs: How to Have Fun and Make Money in a Bad Economy as insightful and fascinating!!

Odd jobs can definitely bring in a good income, but often it requires a great deal of creativity, diligence, and a willingness to take risks. Certainly there are high costs to pay for the education and training required to become a doctor or a lawyer, but if you’re a bright and hardworking person, either one is a pretty straightforward path to success. There are more unknowns in the odd job road to success, and so a lot of people don’t even consider it.

Quote of the Day

A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.

- Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jobs, Robots, Capitalism, Inequality, And You

The second thesis is one which I am less ready to dismiss. As Winship puts it:

If technology reduces demand for labor by a quarter, that might translate into everyone working 25 percent less rather than unemployment rising by one-fourth.

I fully agree. Indeed, in my view, the ultimate purpose of technology is to destroy all jobs and bring on a post-scarcity economy. Let’s face it, a whole lot of today’s jobs are already total bullshit; but they persist because we live within an economic system built by, for, and around people with full-time jobs.

The trouble is, we can’t get there from here, not without wholesale changes. Machines will reduce labor, yes, great: but equally, across all of society? You must be joking. If technology cuts the demand for labor by 25%, then laborers will earn 25% less, or 25% of them will become unemployed, while all the benefits go to those who own and/or built/wrote that technology. That’s capitalism.

- More Here

Readme Driven Development

Write your Readme first. 

First. As in, before you write any code or tests or behaviors or stories or ANYTHING. 

By writing your Readme first you give yourself some pretty significant advantages:
  • Most importantly, you're giving yourself a chance to think through the project without the overhead of having to change code every time you change your mind about how something should be organized or what should be included in the Public API. Remember that feeling when you first started writing automated code tests and realized that you caught all kinds of errors that would have otherwise snuck into your codebase? That's the exact same feeling you'll have if you write the Readme for your project before you write the actual code.
  • As a byproduct of writing a Readme in order to know what you need to implement, you'll have a very nice piece of documentation sitting in front of you. You'll also find that it's much easier to write this document at the beginning of the project when your excitement and motivation are at their highest. Retroactively writing a Readme is an absolute drag, and you're sure to miss all kinds of important details when you do so.
  • If you're working with a team of developers you get even more mileage out of your Readme. If everyone else on the team has access to this information before you've completed the project, then they can confidently start work on other projects that will interface with your code. Without any sort of defined interface, you have to code in serial or face reimplementing large portions of code.
  • It's a lot simpler to have a discussion based on something written down. It's easy to talk endlessly and in circles about a problem if nothing is ever put to text. The simple act of writing down a proposed solution means everyone has a concrete idea that can be argued about and iterated upon.
- More here by Tom Preston-Werner

Quote of the Day

What self-control doesn't mean is mindless self-sacrifice or knee-jerk self-denial. On the contrary, it represents an affirmation of self, for it requires not the negation of instinct but its integration into a more complete form of character-one that takes account of more than just immediate pleasures and pains. The self-control I'm talking about means acting in keeping with your highest level of reflection.

- Daniel Akst, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What I've Been Reading

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation Hardcover by Tyler Cowen. I have lost count how much I have learned from Tyler ; he has been one of my most important virtual gurus. So when his new book comes out, it's a quite celebration. Like all of his writings, this book also has full of surprising insights.

Likely Winners of the New Machine Age:
  • Humans with strong math and analytic skills, humans who are comfortable working with computers because they understand their operation, and humans who intuitively grasp how computers can be used for marketing and for other non-techie tasks. It’s not just about programming skills; it is also often about developing the hardware connected with software, understanding what kind of internet ads connect with their human viewers, or understanding what shape and color makes an iPhone attractive in a given market. Computer nerds will indeed do well, but not everyone will have to become a computer nerd.
  • The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key, not sheer number-crunching or programming for its own sake. Number-crunching skills will be turned over to the machines sooner or later.
  • Despite all the talk about STEM fields, I see marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy.
  • It sounds a little silly, but making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future. At some point it is hard to sell more physical stuff to high earners, yet there is usually just a bit more room to make them feel better. Better about the world. Better about themselves. Better about what they have achieved.
  • Labor markets are tough, and not always fair, but intelligence will be rewarded for a long time to come. So will the right skills in STEM fields, finance, management, and marketing, all of which meld together the strengths of diverse intelligences, whether those intelligences are human or not.
  • In any case, rather than converging, man and machine are likely to become more different in some ways, including cognitively. Most of this book is about the evolution of the machines, but people will change too. I’m not talking about longer-run changes in the genetic code, but rather more simple changes in how we live our lives and which skills we decide to acquire or not. To put it bluntly, we are outsourcing some parts of our brain to mechanical devices and indeed we have been doing that for millennia, whether it be to writing implements, books, the abacus, or a modern supercomputer. In response to all of these developments we have focused more on the skills that the machines can’t bring us.
  • Personal qualities of character such as self-motivation and conscientiousness will reap a lot of gains in the new world to come. We can already see this in the numbers. The individuals falling out of the middle class are more likely to be divorced, to have low levels of formal education, to have low test scores, and to have a history of drug use.
On Human-Machine pairs and Freestyle chess:
  • The top games of Freestyle chess probably are the greatest heights chess has reached, though who actually is to judge? The human– machine pair is better than any human— or any machine— can readily evaluate. No search engine will recognize the paired efforts as being the best available, because the paired strategies are deeper than what the machine alone can properly evaluate.
Our innate limitations:
  • At the cognitive level, this unexpected depth is also a disturbing result. It shows that we humans— even at the highest levels of intellect and competition— like to oversimplify matters. We boil things down to our “intuitions” too much. We like pat answers and we take too much care to avoid intellectual chaos. Even if you don’t think those flaws apply to everybody, they seem to apply to some of the most intelligent and analytic people in the human race, especially good chess players. 
  • What does all this mean for our decisions. especially in the workplace? - 
    Human– computer teams are the best teams, 
    The person working the smart machine doesn’t have to be expert in the task at hand, Below some critical level of skill, adding a man to the machine will make the team less effective than the machine working alone and Knowing one’s own limits is more important than it used to be.
Advantages of Machine Age:
  • In our pursuit of romance and long-term partnership we humans tend to avoid unfamiliar complications. We often celebrate our commonalities and avoid the complications that come from dwelling on our differences. This is one place machine intelligence can help. Machines have no fear of the unfamiliar.
A Simple Fact:
  • One theme of this book is that the advances of genius machines come in an uneven and staggered fashion. Just as Cox will get easier to deal with, intelligent machines, and the costs of coping with them, will become more prominent in other areas, such as our cars or our home appliances. For the foreseeable future, you’ll always have to be learning something, reprogramming something, downloading new software, and pushing some buttons, all to have the sometimes dubious privilege of working with these new technological wonders.

Future of US Politics:
  • In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, and growing income inequality, a lot of commentators are predicting an America torn by protest and maybe political violence. I do think we’ll see some outbursts of trouble, but the longer-run picture will be fairly calm and indeed downright orderly. I expect a society that will be more conservative, both politically and in the more literal sense of that term. For all the prognostications about the American future, the most important single fact, and the easiest to predict, is simply that we will be a lot older. That will make us more conservative, in this case referring to the literal rather than political sense of that term. Revolutions and protests are the endeavors of young hotheads, not sage (or tired) sixty-four-year-olds. The societies with lots of unmarried young men are the most vulnerable to sudden revolutions and major political changes. Large parts of the Arab world fit this designation, and thus we have seen the Arab Spring, but we Americans are moving along a different path.
  • Whatever you may think of this future from your 2013 vantage point, people will look around and still see that America is one of the nicest places in the world. That’s hardly a recipe for revolutionary fervor.
  • My skepticism toward these hypotheses of disorder is not just driven by my recognition of the general aging of the population or the falling crime rates. There are many other historical periods, including medieval times, where inequality is high, upward mobility is fairly low, and the social order is fairly stable, even if we as moderns find some aspects of that order objectionable.
  • The American polity is unlikely to collapse, but we’ll all look back on the immediate postwar era as a very special time. Our future will bring more wealthy people than ever before, but also more poor people, including people who do not always have access to basic public services. Rather than balancing our budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow the real wages of many workers to fall and thus we will allow the creation of a new underclass. We won’t really see how we could stop that. Yet it will be an oddly peaceful time, with the general aging of American society and the proliferation of many sources of cheap fun. We might even look ahead to a time when the cheap or free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx’s communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism.

Quote of the Day

What of itself gives us most to think about, what is most thought-provoking, is this – that we are still not thinking.

- Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Breakthrough of Instant Diagnosis - Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos

'The reality within our health-care system today is that when someone you care about gets really sick, by the time you find that out it's most often too late to do anything about it. It's heartbreaking. Because in those moments, there's nothing you wouldn't do to change it, and too often you're helpless," says Elizabeth Holmes. "We're finding cancer when you have a tumor, or heart disease by virtue of the fact that you're having a heart attack." She wants to change that.

Ms. Holmes, a 29-year-old chemical and electrical engineer and entrepreneur, dropped out of Stanford as an undergraduate after founding a life sciences company called Theranos in 2003. Her inventions, which she is discussing in detail here for the first time, could upend the industry of laboratory testing and might change the way we detect and treat disease.

en years ago, Ms. Holmes was working out of the basement of a group college house, a world away from her current headquarters at a rambling industrial building in a research park just off campus. The company's real estate was one of the few Theranos facts known to Silicon Valley, but one suggestive of the closely held business's potential: The space was once home to Facebook, and before that Hewlett-Packard.

The secret that hundreds of employees are now refining involves devices that automate and miniaturize more than 1,000 laboratory tests, from routine blood work to advanced genetic analyses. Theranos's processes are faster, cheaper and more accurate than the conventional methods and require only microscopic blood volumes, not vial after vial of the stuff. The experience will be revelatory to anyone familiar with current practices, which often seem like medicine by Bram Stoker.

A Theranos technician first increases blood flow to your hand by applying a wrap similar to one of those skiing pocket warmers, then uses a fingerstick to draw a few droplets of blood from the capillaries at the end of your hand. The blood wicks into a tube in a cartridge that Ms. Holmes calls a "nanotainer," which holds microliters of a sample, or about the amount of a raindrop. The nanotainer is then run through the analyzers in a Theranos laboratory. Results are usually sent back to a physician, but a full blood work-up—metabolic and immune markers, cell count, etc.—was in my inbox by the time I walked out the door. (Phew: all clear.)

It's the kind of modern, painless service that consumers rarely receive in U.S. health care, though Ms. Holmes makes the point the other way around: "We're here in Silicon Valley inside the consumer technology world . . . and what we think we're building is the first consumer health-care technology company. Patients are empowered by having better access to their own health information, and then by owning their own data.

And the BIG question is:

The other obvious tech reality is that the devices keep shrinking, and over the last several years Theranos has been granted several patents for portable diagnosis system at the point of care. One of them even invokes—forget the iWatch—a wearable diagnostic device that would attach to the body with silicon microneedles "about the size of a human hair."

The biggest question is whether Ms. Holmes has discovered one of those often promised, more often elusive disruptive innovations designed to cut costs while improving quality. In a conversation about a year ago, Secretary Shultz said Ms. Holmes could be "the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates."

- More Here

How Soccer is Saving Elephants, Rhinos & Other Endangered Species

The clock strikes 4:00 pm and the bell rings – signaling the end of classes and the beginning of playtime at Tigithi Secondary School in Laikipia County, Kenya.  Almost immediately, 150 boys and girls rush out of their classrooms to enjoy a game of football on the school’s pitch. What’s unique is that these young energetic students are playing with the nearly indestructible One World Futbols sponsored by Chevrolet. These balls were donated to the school back in February.

The rate of poaching in Kenya has nearly doubled in the past 24 months. Poaching has become such a serious problem in East Africa that in 2011 alone Ol Pejeta lost five of our 88 rhinos to poachers – our greatest loss in 20 years.  Elephants and rhinos are on top of the endangered species list, being slaughtered for their tusks and horns respectively. Unfortunately, some local villagers are being lured into the illegal killing of these animals in exchange for large sums of cash.  These products are then smuggled through well-connected middlemen and find their way to Asia where the market is rife.2013 through a partnership between One World Futbol Project and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy – a non-profit wildlife conservancy in Kenya supporting endangered species, tourism and community outreach.

The Conservancy is using soccer and these ultra-durable balls to engage youth living close to wildlife.  Through soccer, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is teaching students about the troubles poaching causes and giving the community at large a greater sense of the importance of conservation.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Leadership is the art of getting people to follow you when they don’t have to.

- Cameron's Tragic Failure

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Story of Sara Blakely

Believe in your idea, trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to fail. It took me two years from the time I had the idea for Spanx until the time I had a product in hand ready to sell into stores. I must have heard the word “no” a thousand times. If you believe in your idea 100%, don’t let anyone stop you! Not being afraid to fail is a key part of the success of Spanx.

10 Lessons I Learned from Sara Blakely That You Won't Hear in Business School

Valve - Handbook for New Employees

This is the handbook given to new employees at gaming company Valve and its titled -  "A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do" (full handbook here in pdf format).

Welcome to Flatland:
Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.
But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.
That’s why Valve is flat. It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.
A flat structure removes every organizational barrier between your work and the customer enjoying that work. Every company will tell you that “the customer is boss,” but here that statement has weight. There’s no red tape stop- ping you from figuring out for yourself what our customers want, and then giving it to them.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of responsibility,” you’re right. And that’s why hiring is the single most important thing you will ever do at Valve (see “Hiring,” on page 43). Any time you interview a potential hire, you need to ask yourself not only if they’re talented or collaborative but also if they’re capable of literally running this company, because they will be.

The Office:
Sometimes things around the office can seem a little too good to be true. If you find yourself walking down the hall one morning with a bowl of fresh fruit and Stump- town-roasted espresso, dropping off your laundry to be washed, and heading into one of the massage rooms, don’t freak out. All these things are here for you to actually use. And don’t worry that somebody’s going to judge you for taking advantage of it—relax! And if you stop on the way back from your massage to play darts or work out in the Valve gym or whatever, it’s not a sign that this place is going to come crumbling down like some 1999-era dot-com start- up. If we ever institute caviar-catered lunches, though, then maybe something’s wrong. Definitely panic if there’s caviar.

What if I screw up?
Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake. It wouldn’t make sense for us to operate that way. Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company— we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penal- ized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn. We can always repair the mistake or make up for it.
Screwing up is a great way to find out that your assump- tions were wrong or that your model of the world was a little bit off. As long as you update your model and move forward with a better picture, you’re doing it right. Look for ways to test your beliefs. Never be afraid to run an ex- periment or to collect more data.
It helps to make predictions and anticipate nasty out- comes. Ask yourself “what would I expect to see if I’m right?” Ask yourself “what would I expect to see if I’m wrong?” Then ask yourself “what do I see?” If something totally unexpected happens, try to figure out why.
There are still some bad ways to fail. Repeating the same mistake over and over is one. Not listening to customers or peers before or after a failure is another. Never ignore the evidence; particularly when it says you’re wrong.

Quote of the Day

A friend is someone who knows where all your bodies are buried. Because they're the ones who helped you put them there.

And sometimes, if you're really lucky, they help you dig them back up.

- Jenny Lawson, Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wisdom Of The Week

This week, I read Nassim Taleb's new paper (coauthored with Constantine Sandis) called  The Skin In The Game Heuristic for Protection Against Tail Events. The paper was brilliant and it's sort of a follow up (an implementation guide per se) of his recent book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

Standard economic theory makes an allowance for the agency problem, but not the compounding of moral hazard in the presence of informational opacity, particularly in what concerns high-impact events in fat tailed domains. But the ancients did; so did many aspects of moral philosophy. We propose a global and morally mandatory heuristic that anyone involved in an action which can possibly generate harm for others, even probabilistically, should be required to be exposed to some damage, regardless of context. While perhaps not sufficient, the heuristic is certainly necessary hence mandatory. It is supposed to counter risk hiding and transfer in the tails. We link the rule to various philosophical approaches to ethics and moral luck.

The problems and remedies are as follows:
  • First, consider policy makers and politicians. In a de- centralized system, say municipalities, these people are typically kept in check by feelings of shame upon harming others with their mistakes. In a large centralized system, the sources of error are not so visible. Spreadsheets do not make people feel shame. The penalty of shame is a factor that counts in favour of governments (and businesses) that are small, local, personal, and decentralized versus ones that are large, national or multi-national, anonymous, and centralised. When the latter fail, everybody except the culprit ends up paying the cost, leading to national and international measures of endebtment against future generations or "austerity ". These points against "big government " models should not be confused with the standard libertarian argument against states securing the welfare of their citizens, but only against doing so in a centralized fashion that enables people to hide behind bureaucratic anonymity. Much better to have a communitarian municipal approach:in situations in which we cannot enforce skin- in-the game we should change the system to lower the con- sequences of errors.
  • Second, we misunderstand the incentive structure of corporate managers. Counter to public perception, corpo- rate managers are not entrepreneurs. They are not what one could call agents of capitalism. Between 2000 and 2010, in the United States, the stock market lost (depend- ing how one measures it) up two trillion dollars for in- vestors, compared to leaving their funds in cash or treasury bills. It is tempting to think that since managers are paid on incentive, they would be incurring losses. Not at all: there is an irrational and unethical asymmetry. Because of the embedded option in their profession, managers received more than four hundred billion dollars in compensation. The manager who loses money does not return his bonus or incur a negative one4.The built-in optionality in the com- pensation of corporate managers can only be removed by forcing them to eat some of the losses5.
  • Third, there is a problem with applied and academic economists, quantitative modellers, and policy wonks. The reason economic models do not fit reality (fat-tailed reality) is that economists have no disincentive and are never penalized by their errors. So long as they please the journal editors, or produce cosmetically sound "scientific" papers, their work is fine. So we end up using models such as port- folio theory and similar methods without any remote em- pirical or mathematical reason. The solution is to prevent economists from teaching practitioners. Again this brings us to decentralization by a system where policy is decided at a local level by smaller units and hence in no need for economists.
  • Fourth, the predictors. Predictions in socioeconomic domains don’t work. Predictors are rarely harmed by their predictions. Yet we know that people take more risks after they see a numerical prediction. The solution is to ask — and only take into account— what the predictor has done (what he has in his portfolio), or is committed to doing in the future. It is unethical to drag people into exposures without incurring losses. Further, predictors work with bi- nary variables (Taleb and Tetlock, 2013), that is, "true" or "false" and play with the general public misunderstanding of tail events. They have the incentives to be right more of- ten than wrong, whereas people who have skin in the game do not mind being wrong more often than they are right, provided the wins are large enough. In other words, pre- dictors have an incentive to play the skewness game. The simple solution is as follows: predictors should be exposed to the variables they are predicting and should be subjected to the dictum "do not tell people what you think, tell them what you have in your portfolio" (Taleb, 2012, p.386) . Clearly predictions are harmful to people as, by the psychological mechanism of anchoring, they increases risk taking.
  • Fifth, to deal with warmongers, Ralph Nader has rightly proposed that those who vote in favor of war should subject themselves (or their own kin) to the draft.
We believe Skin in the game is a heuristic for a safe and just society. It is even more necessary under fat tailed environments. Opposed to this is the unethical practice of taking all the praise and benefits of good fortune whilst disassociating oneself from the results of bad luck or mis- calculation. We situate our view within the framework of ethical debates relating to the moral significance of actions whose effects result from ignorance and luck. We shall demonstrate how the idea of skin in the game can effectively resolve debates about (a) moral luck and (b) egoism vs. altruism, while successfully bypassing (c) debates between subjectivist and objectivist norms of action under uncertainty, by showing how their concerns are of no pragmatic concern.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Quote of the Day

Secular thinkers find this view of human affairs dispiriting, and most have retreated to some version of the Christian view in which history is a narrative of redemption. The most common of these narratives are theories of progress, in which the growth of knowledge enables humanity to advance and improve its condition. Actually, humanity cannot advance or retreat, for humanity cannot act; there is no collective entity with intentions or purposes, only ephemeral struggling animals each with its own passions and illusions. The growth of scientific knowledge cannot alter this fact. Believers in progress – whether social democrats or neoconservatives, Marxists, anarchists, or technocratic Positivists – think of ethics and politics as being like science, with each step forward enabling further advances in future. Improvement in society is cumulative, they believe, so that the elimination of one evil can be followed by the removal of others in an open-ended process. But human affairs show no sign of being additive in this way: what is gained can always be lost, sometimes – as with the return of torture as an accepted technique in war and government – in the blink of an eye. Human knowledge tends to increase, but humans do not become any more civilized as a result. They remain prone to every kind of barbarism, and while the growth of knowledge allows them to improve their material conditions, it also increases the savagery of their conflicts.

- John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia