Wednesday, July 30, 2008

That's one possible name for the Web 2.0 backup service. The .COM domain is available.

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Web 2.0^2.0

One worrisome trend with the shift to web-based applications and services is that your data no longer live under your control. Companies have outages, cancel products, go out of business, etc. With local data, you can back up to physical media or use an online service. Data important to you can disappear, and you can do nothing about it. This is a problem, which means it's also an opportunity.

Any Web 2.0 startup worth using gives you access to your data. GMail supports POP and IMAP, Blogger and Facebook have APIs, and nearly everyone has some kind of RSS feed. It's too much to expect the average person to use those protocols directly. What we need is a product to do it for us, something that knows how to talk to Flickr or Tumblr or whatever and get a copy of our data somewhere safe.

This product would take one (or both) of two forms. One would be a web-based service. That's a gimme for a Web 2.0 offering. You pay them $5/month, they suck down and store your data. Naturally, they themselves would need a 2-way API. They'd have plugins for all the sites their customers use. You'd be able to view your emails or tweets or whatever on the site to make sure they're there. You'd also be able to download all that data in a single blob that you could back up yourself locally. Perhaps there would be two levels of service, one where they store your data, and the other where they merely provide a single point of access. They would also provide some way to reconstruct an account from their backups in case the original service had a catastrophic failure.

The other possible form would be as a desktop application. After all, if the goal is to protect you from failures in web-based services, a web-based service might seem beside the point. The desktop application would do exactly what the web-based service did, except the data would be stored locally. What you did from there would be your problem. You pays your moneys, you downloads your softwares. I can see a good case for either form, or even both.

If this is such a good idea, why don't I do it? Simply put, the risk is too great at this time in my life. I can't take 6 months off unpaid to work on something like this. Mortgage, kids, insurance... It's too much. However, I do know a few people (hint hint) who are ideally placed for this. I'll even try to come up with a good name for it.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

As proverbs go, that one is truer than most. It isn't, however, all that helpful by itself. The only advice you can take from it is not to try to help anyone, which is quite a steep price. After years of meditation standing on one leg in a Bhutanese lamasery gift shop, I have discovered the key.

You cannot let yourself think good intentions permit you to do something that is otherwise wrong. The ends don't justify the means. Too many people believe otherwise. Sadly, they're also already familiar with the idea that some people believe otherwise, so they're inoculated against that truth, even with its piles of supporting evidence. I also don't think this is where most people go wrong.

The more significant and subtle point is that the value of help is determined by the recipient. Your friend who's having relationship troubles with the guy that you think isn't good enough for him? You're not helping when you advocate a break-up. I could lose a few pounds, but don't steal my Ben & Jerry's. Cleaning someone's house for them is a great favor, but if you put everything in the wrong place, you've just created more work. An overly-aggressive evangelist may think he's helping me by badgering me to Jesus, but he's really just being a pain in the ass.

That's the part that I think most people don't get. They want to feel like they're helping, even when the recipient of that "help" is worse off as a result. If you're truly sincere about helping someone, you'll make sure you're not imposing your own agenda. You'll make sure you're seeing things from their perspective. And most importantly, you'll make sure that you're actually improving the situation. Otherwise, your "help" is just an act of selfishness.


Monday, July 28, 2008


I'm jumping this book to the front of the queue even though I have yet to post about dozens of other books I read before it. I posted a couple of times last year about the right way to praise kids. One of the researchers, Carol Dweck, whose work put out a book a couple years ago called "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." The sub-title is hokey, but accurate.

Dweck divides the world into two types of people: those with what she calls a "fixed" mindset, and those with a "growth" mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes you either have it or you don't. You're either smart or you're dumb. You have natural athletic talent or you're a klutz. You and your beloved were either meant for each other, or you're wrong. Not only that, but those traits are rigid and, well, fixed. On the other hand, the growth mindset sees all those things as changeable if you have the right attitude and put in the effort.

That's what the aforementioned article about praise got to the heart of. When kids were praised for being smart, they became reluctant to stretch, because they became afraid of failure. Failure meant that they weren't as smart as they thought they were. It meant they were losers. They were defined by those failures. A more subtle consequence was a desperate need to blame their failure on something else, anything at all that could allow them to continue thinking of themselves as natural winners.

Kids who were praised for their effort, on the other hand, were primed to have a "growth" mindset. Initially, they were no more and no less successful than their fixed mindset peers. The difference became apparent over time. Whereas fixed mindset kids were reluctant to challenge themselves, the growth mindset kids actively sought out more difficult work. They may have failed just as much, but that failure did not define them. It happened, and they tried to learn from it to get better.

That, in a nutshell, is the general point that Dweck is trying to get across. It's a good thing she wrote a whole book about it, though. The fixed mindset is pernicious and insidious. It pops up all over the place, whether it's athletics, art, academics, or personal relationships (anybody know a synonym starting with 'a'?). Her chapter on counter-productive messages from parents is especially valuable. She describes in number of possible situations where parents can hamper their child's development by encouraging the perception that ability and talent are innate and unchangeable. Her dialogues are a little cheesy, but they get the point across.

Less successful is her use of well-known figures like Bill Clinton and Jack Welch. That could be my cynicism at work, though, as the only ones I had a problem with were her positive examples, often politicians and businessmen who had written best-selling autobiographies. I didn't have a problem with her mentions of Rafe Esquith and Marva Collins, two teachers who were very successful with techniques like Dwecks applied to kids others had given up on. I found the fixed mindset examples to be more effective, possibly because they were dramatic ones like Enron and Bobby Knight.

Perhaps part of the reason I found this book valuable is that it felt biographical. When I was in first grade, I had a special tutor for advanced math instruction; when I worked by myself in the library, I put up a sign saying, "Don't ask me what I'm doing because I won't tell you." That hostility is characteristic of the fixed mindset, according to Dweck. I also had the experience of coasting through high school and then hitting a wall in college. For a long time, I was reluctant to try hard things because the idea of failure was too intimidating. Now I've come to understand that the what matters isn't what you can do today, but that you do the best you can to be capable of more tomorrow.

Even if you're not me, and chances are you're not, it's still a good book to read if you ever have kids. You in your life may not have a problem, but you want to make sure you send the right messages. Even if you aren't sending the wrong messages, you have to work hard to send the right ones to compensate for our society's misguided values. Dweck suggests with some credibility that our society values natural, effortless ability, which can be pretty discouraging to anyone who doesn't measure up. She points out how the public mythology around so many so-called natural geniuses like Michael Jordan or Thomas Edison fails to mention their tremendous dedication. Teachers and managers would also benefit; it's disturbing how many teachers give up on many students practically the moment they meet them. It's not just about identifying these negative attitudes. Dweck discusses how to change these attitudes, both in yourself and in others. It's a difficult task requiring constant attention, but it can be done.

This is more than self-help babble. It seems like every day there's a new discovery attesting to the plasticity of the human mind. You can be better at everything you do, but only if you're willing to try. In a couple hundred pages, Dweck ably describes her findings, supports them with references to academic studies, narrates illustrative anecdotes, and provides a prescription for the reader. It's hard to ask much more.


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For Those about to Rock, We Salute Wikipedia

Heavy Metal Umlaut is my favorite Wikipedia article. None of the Wannapedias I mentioned has anything about it. Not on Conservapedia, Mahalo, Knol, Citizendium, or Squidoo. Final score? Wikipedia: awesome. Everyone else: l4me.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cheap sound-proofing

With a noisy 3-year old in the house, I spend a lot of time thinking about sound proofing. A lot of time. It's pretty expensive to get it done right, but I think I have an idea for doing it on the cheap: bubble-wrap. I gather that effective sound insulation is like insulating for temperature. You want to avoid solid surfaces touching each other and use lots of layers. Bubble wrap seems perfect. All those cells of air and layers of plastic. I figure a few sheets ought to do a pretty good job. I haven't gotten desperate enough to try it yet, or maybe I just haven't hit on the right way to do it.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

Prius cost increase

Toyota's $500 increase in the price of the Prius is an important reminder that the gasoline use is only part of the energy consumed. Quoth the spokesman: "Almost everything is made out of petroleum. Rubber, plastic, transportation (costs), glass, things like that." A hybrid will save some energy, but it's important to consider where you're starting. If you have, say, a 5-year old conventional Honda Civic, a Prius will likely be a net loss, energy-wise.

Of course, that assumes that you accept Toyota's stated reason. Seems more likely that the price increase is because sales are through the roof. Claiming it's due to transportation is no doubt partly true, but also a more acceptable justification for a price increase in economic hard times.

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In denial about Wikipedia

5 years ago, you would have been completely justified in being skeptical about Wikipedia. was an example of what was considered better. It was controlled. The authors and editors were qualified and authoritative. Wikipedia seemed like a ridiculous exercise in utopian naïveté.

7 years into the experiment, it's clear that Wikipedia is a success. Wiki works. What was healthy skepticism increasingly looks like denial. Mostly it's just verbal sniping, but there are a number of projects that attempt to "fix" Wikipedia by restricting authorship to appropriately qualified "authorities."

Citizendium requires real names and requires all articles be approved by their group of "experts." They're not different enough nor do they have sufficient critical mass to catch up. They don't appreciate what it is that has made Wikipedia such an unstoppable force.

Conservapedia aims to fix Wikipedia's "liberal bias." What they will do about reality's known liberal bias remains unclear. Their misguided aims doom them from the start; I imagine it will be no more successful than Air America Radio.

Mahalo tries to avoid authorship altogether. They provide no information directly. It's like they took the corresponding Wikipedia article and stripped out everything but the "References" section. Their compelling advantage is thus that they provide less information and require you to do more work. Good luck with that.

Finally, Google has entered the arena with Knol, which encourages anyone to post an article on anything, and let the search algorithm sort out who's best. I thought that approach was useless when it was called Squidoo; apparently Google likes the idea, as well as the idea of giving it a dumb name. Assuming people use it, you'll end up with dozens of different pages on a single subject, all incomplete in different ways. You also cannot make a small edit to an existing article; you have to build the whole thing yourself. Just like one feature does not make a business, a single correction does not make a useful Knol.

The one fly in the ointment for Wikipedia is Google's control of the dominant search engine. Thus far, they've been true to their "don't be evil" motto in their index; if their Wikipedia jealousy causes them to pervert their search results, people will just stop using Google and go directly to Wikipedia. I already do that for many of searches (Firefox's keyword searches are indispensable). And that doesn't even get into the shrieks of delight that will echo from Redmond (Microsoft) and Sunnyvale (Yahoo) as Google's competitors contemplate what the DoJ will do in response.

Every one of these alternatives throws the baby out with the bathwater. Wikipedia's genius is how it manages to be both centralized and decentralized at the same time. What's centralized is the collection of information, something Squidoo, Mahalo, and Knol cannot match. Besides the obvious advantage of having a one-stop shop, they ignore the importance of the snowball effect; to produce a better lens or Knol, you have to start from scratch. I would be surprised if any of my regular readers has never even once made an edit to Wikipedia.

The decentralized part of Wikipedia is of course the army of authors and editors, namely, the entire population of Internet users. It turns out that really matters. Conservapedia rejects anyone who doesn't share their set of biases (i.e., most of everyone) while Citizendium puts barriers in front of anyone who might want to contribute. If there's anything we've learned in 15 years of the Web, it's that everything you put between a user and an action, no matter how seemingly trivial, chips away at the number of people who will actually bother.

These sites may improve on Wikipedia in certain narrow ways, but those improvements come at such a cost that none of them will be able to defeat Wikipedia. Wikipedia certainly could stand a few improvements. Vandalism is generally contained, but still occurs frequently. The cabal of moderators occasionally gets unhinged. Wikipedia's markup has gotten increasingly complicated as the project has adopted more sophisticated conventions for formatting and organization, restricting what a casual editor can do. Those are all real problems that Wikipedia has yet to solve. Some day, something better will come along, but these guys ain't it.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Spam suspect identification

One of the advantages of having my own domain is that I can give every service I sign up with a different, unique email address. As a result, I know that Macy's gave my address out so I could get spam from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Thanks!

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Peacock's Tailpipes

A luxury car is a way to advertise earning power. Only people with a lot of money can afford to waste so much of it on something so useless. It's like the peacock's tail; only the supremely fit can afford to expend so many of their resources in such a display.

Much like the peacock, luxury cars' tails display wastefulness. Cheap cars get good mileage. Luxury cars get bad mileage. More fuel consumption means more exhaust. Ordinary cars have a single, smaller tailpipe. Some pickup trucks have two, or one larger one. Luxury cars usually have 2 and often have 4. They advertise that their owners don't need to worry about the cost of gasoline; they can burn as much as they want.

We as a society conserve only because we have to. Conservation is otherwise contrary to our values. Luxury cars demonstrate what we truly aspire to, and that is to waste. Waste is the ultimate luxury. One day, perhaps there will be high-mileage luxury car. When that happens, you'll know that we've found something even better to waste. I hope it's something we can afford.

Addendum: I am aware of high mileage exotic cars like the Tesla. Those exist in such small numbers that they don't matter.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

The AMA on home births

The American Medical Association has issued a statement against home births (original Word doc converted to HTML by Google). To me this provides further evidence that, at the very least, the AMA does not have the best interests of the general public at heart.

One concern is their apparent disregard for quality of life issues. Their focus is narrow, defining success as survival of mother and child:

"An apparently uncomplicated pregnancy or delivery can quickly become very complicated in the setting of maternal hemorrhage, shoulder dystocia, eclampsia or other obstetric emergencies, necessitating the need for rigorous standards, appropriate oversight of obstetric providers, and the availability of emergency care, for the health of both the mother and the baby during a delivery..."

It is safer to never go on a boat. It is safer to avoid travel. It is safer to never drink more than a couple bottles of beer. Safety is not a goal to be achieved to the exclusion of all else. Of course we want the mother and child to survive, but in many cases medical interventions do nothing to improve survival rates.

Hospital births are unpleasant. The medical staff wants to get a live baby out. It matters little to them whether the mother has a 3 month recovery or a 4-week recovery. They don't care if you go home exhausted and stressed out. Many OBs seem to see their patients as unruly children who must be told what to do. They often seek control and predictability where a less predictable and more organic birth would be better for everyone involved.

Pitocin, epidurals, Caesarean sections, and other interventions all have legitimate and justified applications in some pregnancies. Like much of American health care, however, pregnancy and birth suffer from an excess of medical intervention. OBs certainly have their reasons. Our society is litigious. The financial incentives are perverse, rewarding the amount of work regardless of appropriateness. The staff doesn't have to suffer through a recovery made excessively difficult by unnecessary interventions. That their behavior is understandable doesn't mean it's in the best interests of all families.

Medicine is, ideally, an empirical discipline. However, the AMA cites no medical studies in support of their statement. That makes sense, because those research studies don't exist. There are studies suggesting that home births are not worse in terms of mortality, while being superior in reducing medical interventions. I am not the AMA, so I can't say what their motives are. However, the AMA is a powerful lobby with many characteristics of a guild. It seems reasonable that their motivation is to maintain control of a significant health area. That preserves their prestige as well as their livelihoods. Their efforts have the effect of reducing competition. That is so obvious a consequence that it cannot be accidental. Perhaps I am too cynical, and they make these efforts only with reluctance. Regardless, they consider the costs acceptable, which is suspect because they bear few costs and yield only benefits.

The final and most egregious part of this statement comes at the end:

RESOLVED, That our AMA develop model legislation in support of the concept that the safest setting for labor, delivery, and the immediate post-partum period is in the hospital, or a birthing center within a hospital complex...

They want to use the law to restrict individual freedom and force their methods on everyone. Their methods are often what's best. It's not often enough. The best data we have are clear, and the AMA offers little in rebuttal. Rather than prove the superiority of their care, and rely on individuals to make the right decision, they would rather use their prestige and political power to try to eliminate alternatives. That frees them of the burden of demonstrating their superiority, as well as eliminating much of the incentive to improve what is clearly not good enough.

This, among other issues, has led me to conclude that part of the dysfunction of the American medical system can be blamed on the AMA and similar organizations. They can be truly excellent in a number of areas, but they seem to believe that their expertise is broader than it is. Everyone make mistakes, even with the best of intentions. However, the AMA is a political entity as well, and those politics have tainted what they do. We have excessive respect for doctors in our society, and that reverence is hurting us all.

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Every now and then I toy around with the idea of getting a Master's degree in Computer Science. There's a lot to recommend it. I'm the least educated person in my family. My mom has two bachelor's degrees, my dad a BS and MS, my sister two bachelor's degrees and an MBA, and Jessica a BS and MA. I just have my lowly BA. It's not even a BS even though it's CS. Rice didn't offer the BS until my junior year, at which point changing course would have required at least another semester, which, at $10,000 a pop, was a bridge too far.

There are a number of important topics in computing where either my initial degree was weak, or the last 8 years has allowed my earlier knowledge to atrophy. Compilers, for instance. It's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem with learning those things on the job, as jobs that use those skills require you to already know them. To some extent I can learn those on my own, but I would benefit from a more structured program for some of the more challenging and/or abstract subjects.

UT has a Software Engineering Master's degree program. I went to an information session for that a few years ago, and concluded that I'd rather have a proper MS CS. The SE Master's is a lot more vocationally-oriented, and the covered material either things I've already learned or could more easily learn on my own than the harder-core MS CS material.

On the other hand, there are lots of reasons not to attempt the degree. The most significant is the opportunity cost. It would take at least 3 years and $35,000 (at 6 credits/semester), at a time when my presence at home is pretty important. I don't think it would grant me a whole lot of earning power directly, though I should not discount the opportunities made available to me by knowing what I previously did not.

I would definitely like to have the knowledge, but it's not just about what I want anymore. My time and money are limited and already spoken for. It will probably be easier in 5 years, but it won't be as valuable then. That's one of the things I've realized. Getting older means that the opportunity costs of changing direction go up and the benefits go down. When you're young, opportunities multiply as time passes. At some point around age 20-25, things change. Now the passage of time means more doors close than open. Maybe it reverses yet again later when the kids get into (or leave) college, but that's a long time from now.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

"The Dark Knight" review missed opportunity

The review headline in the "Austin-American Statesman" for "The Dark Knight" called it a "Fierce Tour de Force." Hello? How about a "Tour de Fierce?"

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Drying clothes in a hurry

Use the microwave carefully to dry small articles of clothing if you're in a rush. Do it in 30 to 45 second phases. Doing it in bigger chunks is risky because if your clothes get dry partway through, they'll char and burn. Not fun. Don't put anything with metal in, either.

If you're not quite so daring, or your clothing is too big, you can use your regular clothes dryer, though it takes a little longer. Don't just put that one item in by itself, though. If you do that, it'll just stick to the drum by centrifugal force; it won't tumble. Thus, it won't get exposed to the stream of hot air. Put a couple of bath towels in with it. They'll knock it around. As a bonus, they'll also pick up some of the moisture. And, of course, if it's something you need to iron anyway, you don't need to dry it all the way.


A classic example of my law of ranking

Remember my law of ranking? From a blog post about the relative value of professional sports franchies in the US:

The New York Yankees are the only non-NFL franchise in the top 27.

Emphasis mine.

Why 27? Simple: #28 is the New York Mets, another non-NFL franchise. What sounds more impressive, the above statement, "1 of the top 25," or "2 of the top 30?" 27 is slightly bigger than 25, so presumably has slightly more impact*, and 2 is much bigger than 1, so its impact is much less.

* Not worth it in my opinion, especially considering the Law of Ranking, but whatever.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Colorized ponies

Hybrid minivans

As far as passenger vehicles go, it seems to me that the best ones to hybridize would be minivans.

Minivans usually get worse mileage than cars, so the impact would be greater. Pickup trucks and SUVs obviously get bad mileage as well, but a lot of people buy those who don't fully use them, or, if they do, don't do it often enough. Those people would be better off just buying a smaller vehicle with a conventional power train and renting a larger vehicle as needed. On the other hand, you can be pretty sure that anyone who buys a minivan derives substantial practical benefit from the things it can do that a smaller vehicle cannot. Nobody buys a minivan for image.

The usual owners of minivans tend to be families with multiple children. Odds are pretty good that they do more driving than the average person getting kids to and from school and other activities. It's also more likely that minivans will be in stop-and-go driving situations where hybrids are most valuable. Of all passenger vehicle types, minivans seem like the best target for hybridization efforts, because they use substantial amounts of gasoline, there is often no practical alternative.

Most of this probably applies to smaller SUVs as well, but they're basically just tall minivans anyway.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Federer vs. Nadal at Wimbledon

I haven't watched much tennis over the last few years, but I'm sure glad I saw the Wimbledon men's* singles final today. Two of the sport's best players, not just today, but in history, going at it hard for high stakes. They played some fantastic tennis, somehow chasing down every ball, making winners and 128 mph serves even 4 hours into the match. I don't think anyone could have watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal today and not thought that those two men were among the best athletes in the world in any sport. It was awesome.

* Sorry, "gentleman's," a word which I assume still has some class Over There


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Fail Blog

From the makers of I Can Has Cheezburger, the Fail Blog. Adults only. I especially liked Bambi, Air Conditioning, Sophistication, Playground, and Belt, and that's just from the first 3 pages.