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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mad Men Season 4

At 13 episodes a season, Mad Men manages to keep the quality of its writing high, and Mad Men: Season Four was not an exception. What's special about the series is that each episode jumps forward by months, so you have to fill in pieces yourself. At this point, the characters are all fleshed out, even the unlikeable ones, and it becomes quite possible to predict who will do what.

I thought at the end of Season 3 that the show had gotten into a rut. Season 4 gets out of it, and depicts quite nicely the problems of a startup. Not everything goes well, but one would not expect it to.

One interesting note is that this series illustrates clearly that Power is the defining context for relationships and philandering. Good stuff.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: The Immigrants

The Immigrants is a novel set in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. For some reason, San Francisco has yet to have its Raymond Chandler, (Wallace Stegner's amazing Angle of Repose notwithstanding) and unfortunately, Howard Fast isn't all that great a writer.

However, I found the book itself compelling reading. It follows the story of Dan Lavette, who as a young man was orphaned by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. While he lots his parents, he made a ton of money with the boat his father left him, ferrying people to and from Oakland during and after the days of the disaster. With this, he expanded his fishing fleet, and eventually became a transportation tycoon, along the way picking up a beautiful wife, a mistress, business partners, friends, and enemies. The book ends right after the 1929 Great Depression started, granting a view through the broad sweep of history that the book encompasses. This was a time of history when cutters gave way to powerboats, when railroads were the principal mode of transportation. World War I and its after-effects were widely felt, and inflation became widespread.

What kept me reading was that the author clearly knew the San Francisco Bay Area really well. We get exposed to San Mateo, Menlo Park, Sonoma County, and the environment all during a period of time when $12/day was a princely sum. We get a good view of how hard it was to be a Chinese immigrant during that era. We get to see the prohibition and some of its effects. The weakest part of the novel are the characters. The protagonist, Dan Lavette, is barely fleshed out. His relationship with his estranged wife is described in a few bare sentences, so one is left having to make the leap from the passionate courtship to the estranged marriage with no way to connect the dots. Even the author's attempt to create a non-stereotyped Chinese woman is still weakened by his need to bend everything to his plot, resulting in a barely believable thing for an otherwise strong willed character to do. Ultimately, one sees Lavette as a "Mary Sue" character, one who right until the edge of the Depression, makes all the right decisions with the benefit of hindsight.

If you want literature, read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. Even for an airplane novel, The Immigrants is fun enough, but leaves one feeling empty. I'm unlikely to bother looking at the rest of the 6 book series.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review: Ex Machina Volumes 1-6

Ex Machina is a comic book about a superhero who talks to machines. Sounds like an interesting, if not all that exciting hook. Well, it turns out that he wasn't a terribly competent superhero, and after several years of being treated like a vigilante, he gives up and runs for Mayor of New York City.

The series starts with Mayor Mitchell Hundred having won the election and having to deal with the usual crisis of running a big city. We get introductions to his side-kicks and assistants via flashbacks, which means that we get his origin story bit by bit, as well as gradual exposure to his past, but the characters themselves have already lived through all the kooky capers that come with being a caped crusader. Well, he doesn't wear a cape, but the political cartoonists draw him with one.

The politics in the story is interesting, and of course, Mayor Hundred ran as an independent (the story doesn't get into his campaign), so he gets to pissed off both liberals and conservatives with his political stances and decisions. As of Vol. 6: Power Down, we still only have a hint as to where his powers come from, but we've at this point explored gay marriage, death penalties, September 11th, and other facets of politics in a generally liberal city. Probably the most unrealistic part of the entire series is the idea that a Civil Engineer might ever want to and succeed in politics.

All in all, an excellent series from what I've read so far. I guess I'll read more of it when I get a chance. Recommended.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: Blood Music

Blood Music is Greg Bear's classic book on nanotechnology and the "Gray Ooze" threat. The plot is implausible, including the break through that leads to self-aware nano-tech cells in the researcher's bodies gaining consciousness. The characters are stiff stereotypes who seem barely human.

The book dates itself. For instance, the Cold War is assumed to be an active part of political dynamics, and of course, there's mention of the World Trade Center. The ending of the novel is also similarly weird, with the human race saved by a reinvention of physics as a function of conscious observers.

While the ideas at the time were new, this book illustrates clearly that ideas alone are insufficient for a novel to withstand the test of time. Not recommended.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Fables 15

Fables 14 started a story arc that was interesting and got me to pre-order Fables Vol. 15. Rather than attack the story arc directly, Fables 15 first meandered into Rose Red and Snow White's relationships, providing us with some insight about why Rose Red had it in for Snow White for so long. The premise is a bit convoluted, but we do get a darker view of the Seven Dwarfs out of it, which is not a bad thing.

The climax comes along at issue #100, which indeed was a fascinating and exciting fight, but turned into an anti-climax at the end of issue 100. I was a bit disappointed, but given the last major story arc took well over 70 issues to run, I'll give Willingham the benefit of the doubt. We get a few hints about how special the mundie world is, but nothing significant comes out of it.

All in all, an exciting story, with several interesting developments. Recommended.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Review: Outliers

Outliers is an interesting counter-point to Talent is Over-rated. The big thesis behind the book is that context matters to success. Success doesn't always just comes from being smarter, being harder working, or even just coming from the right background.

We start off with Hockey players in Canada, and discover that due to the selection process, top hockey players tend to come from those who were born earlier in the year. That's because they're physically bigger and therefore more able to compete during the selection, and training takes care of the rest. I now have to wonder whether this applies to intellectual development as well.

Then we romp through a series of other stories, one examining plane crashes and cultures of deference, one exploring how Jewish law firms rose to the top in New York City (it was all about hostile take overs), exploring the success of Asians in math. The last story has a great followup, about KIPP's approach to education. Taking a page from Asian schooling systems, they have school from 7:30am to 5:00pm every day, send kids home with lots of homework, and have Saturday schooling! Sounds like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? Except that these are inner city schools desperately giving poor under-educated kids a chance at college --- and they succeed! Sounds like hard work is the key to success after all, or at least, to being able to lift yourself out of poverty.

All in all, a quick and entertaining read, and shows the Tiger Mom Controversy for what it is: a paper tiger. Recommended.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Review: Brain Rules for Baby

After Brain Rules, I've become a John Medina fan. I will read anything he writes, and to my surprise, he wrote Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, so I naturally put it on hold at the library and read it.

Medina has a healthy disrespect for the common myths and folklore about kids. Baby Einstein DVDs? Worse than useless, actually harmful. In fact, any TV before the age of 2 is considered harmful. Listening to Mozart in the womb? No evidence of improved IQ. The stuff that works is stuff that's difficult for people to do: good nutrition, aerobic exercise, and stress reduction. Exercise, in particular is traditionally considered dangerous for pregnant women.

The relationships chapter is particularly sobering. Conventional wisdom, for instance, says that having a baby can rescue a marriage. Medina debunks that very nicely:
83 percent of new parents experience a moderate to severe crisis during the transition to parenthood. These parents became increasingly hostile toward each other in the first year of the baby's life. The majority were having a hard time.
Medina goes on to explain why the conflicts happen, what causes the problems, and provides a simple solution proven by research:
When you first encounter somebody's "hot" feelings, execute two simple steps:

1. Describe the emotional changes you think you see.

2. Make a guess as to where those emotional changes came from.
In effect, if the wife felt she was being heard by her husband, the marriage was essentially divorce-proof. I had heard of John Gottman's studies on marriages before, but had never looked into the actual studies. Medina summarizes the results and provides concrete things to do. This section of the book's worth paying full price, even if you never intend to have kids.

Other parts of the books are equally impressive. For instance, the difference between praising of effort against praising of talent is important. In another section, he describes the role of emotions, how a child develops them, and why it's important for parents to help a child label them. This section gave me insights as to how my parents brought me up and why I react to emotions the way I do. Again, very much worth reading, no matter who you are. One very impressive bit expressed in the book is the short discussion on what happiness is. In effect, Medina points out that all research has ever shown is that lasting happiness only comes from having good relationships with other humans, be it friends and/or family. People who make $5M/year, for instance, aren't appreciably happier than people who only make $100K/year. (The threshold seems to be $50K/year) This bears out with my life experience, but goes against the grain of what society values.

Finally, the book rounds out with a section on Punishment. This is a very cogent section and is relevant whether you're at work managing a team of engineers or whether you're at home dealing with a child. In particular, the section on praising correct behavior and noticing it is key to molding behavior, and I've never seen it expressed so well in any other written source. A small section on practical tips follow, though from reading it, I can only imagine that Medina's home is 5000 square feet large filled with specialized rooms and laboratories for every activity imaginable. I'd love to see how he cramps that all into a typical middle-class family's home.

All in all, this book comes highly recommended. There is absolutely no fluff in it, and much of it would be new even if you've already read Brain Rules. I'll probably end up buying a copy when I have to return this one to the library.

Review: Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V

For as long as the Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V was at $149.95, it had been sold out. One lucky evening when I saw it available on the web-site, I bought it for XiaoQin to replace the T-mobile Blackberry she'd been using (with only a voice plan) when her primary phone broke. Target was even running a special for a while when the phone was at $129.95 with a $20 credit.

The phone arrived and it activated smoothly and quickly. I immediately used Square to sell a book at an event, which demonstrated that the dataplan was working. XiaoQin got the number ported within 3 hours, but it took a phone call to figure out how to reconfigure the phone for service. After this, I realized that porting her old T-mobile number to Virgin was a mistake: we should have shelled out $25 to port her T-mobile number to Google voice instead!

The phone is a 600MHz phone, or about as slow as the original Droid. It runs Android 2.2, which meant that voice actions, navigation, and all the other goodies that Apple fanboys are missing come standard and works well. It's a bit too slow to run Angry Birds, but the more optimized Angry Birds Rio runs well. Like the original Droid, it's battery would last a day, so you have to charge it every night. The UI outside of Angry Birds is extremely responsive, more responsive than the original droid, without the occasional pause that cause me to have to reboot my 2.3 Nexus One.

The big feature of the Optimus V is Virgin's Beyond Talk plan: $25/month prepaid for unlimited data and 300 voice minutes. At this rate, the phone pays for itself over a T-mobile voice plan in 10 months. For a geek who hardly ever uses the phone, this is a huge feature. While others report that the Sprint network the phone uses is no good, we haven't found this to be the case. It's had voice and data whenever T-mobile has had it, and unlike an iPhone, does not drop any calls while in use as a phone.

The only thing that might give you pause is that the phone is a CDMA phone, which means it won't run anywhere in Europe, for instance. In any case, this is a phone I will seriously consider paying for when my T-mobile prepaid card runs out. Virgin Mobile has finally raised the price on the phone to $199.95 in order to keep the phone in stock and to build inventory, but if the price were to drop back down to $149.95 or even below, this phone would be highly recommended.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Startup Recruiting

Early on in Quora's life, there were lots of questions on Quora like Who are the best engineers at Google?, and Who are the rising stars in Engineering at Google? I don't know who asked those questions, but if you're a startup recruiting engineers, those are the wrong questions to ask.

To begin with, if someone is widely recognized inside a large company, they are unlikely to leave for a startup. Lars Rasmussen, for instance, did not leave for Facebook until after Google Wave was canceled and Facebook wasn't a startup anymore. Secondly, in large organizations that are well past the startup stage, climbing the corporate ladder is as much a measure of political skill as it is a measure of engineering skill. While bringing in someone with political skill might be very useful when you're past the startup stage, at the startup stage it can be a cause of pain by adding very political people into what would otherwise be a unified team. As Sanjeev Singh once said, internalizing Tips for Noogler Engineers might make you a great corporate ladder climber but would also make you useless at a startup.

So what's the right question to ask? The right question to ask would be, Who is the most undervalued engineer at Company X? This brings up two highly desirable traits: one, the engineer probably realizes that he's undervalued (or if he doesn't realize that he would as soon as you showed him your offer), and two, the engineer's probably undervalued because he's precisely the kind of person who can't or won't play the political game highly prized in big companies. I'll lead off with two examples, both from Google.

The most undervalued engineer I know at Google was a tech lead for one of the front-ends responsible for producing most of the company's revenue when I joined. He never shirked from the grungy work of fixing up code and making things work well. He never grabbed the sexy work for himself. Whenever I saw a code review from him, I would be awed by the kind of code he produced: this was not code, this was poetry. I learned something about programming well from every code review he sent me, no matter the language or the system. People knew he was a hot-shot: he was tapped to build another critical system just prior to the IPO. After a few years at this, he moved on to several other projects. But when he came up for promotion (and his manager had to put him up for promotion (after far too long at Google), since he wasn't a self-promoter), the promotion committee sent back the feedback: "Lack of demonstrated leadership ability, and insufficient technical depth."

The second most undervalued engineer I know at Google had both his 20% projects turned into full time Google projects which launched externally to high visibility. You would recognize at least one of these products as something that lots of people used. He too, was denied for promotion once, and after he worked the system and got his promotion, said to me, "After this experience, I want nothing to do with the system." Again, he's not a self-promoter, but his track record should have spoken for itself. Given his track record, it wouldn't surprise me to see him at a startup some time in the future.

Both these men are financially independent, and are effectively economic volunteers. But I can assure you that there exist others like them, and many of them are not economic volunteers. It's actually not that hard to hunt them down, but the trick isn't to ask managers about such under-valued engineers. It's to ask the "leaf-node" engineers who do the work. Ask the right questions, and your recruiting problems for your startup will be half over.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Before picking up The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it is important to realize the Pullman is an atheist and not shy about it. So I expected to read an insightful and deep, if not funny novel about Christianity.

The book's premise was that Jesus had a twin brother, Christ, who stayed in the background recording Christ's deeds while eventually having an important role to play in the final days of that well known tale. Rather than use the Bible's original words, Pullman does a good job of bringing the stories into the vernacular, and keeping things as I remembered from my (now ancient) reading of the bible.

Nevertheless, I found the plot a little too predictable. Once the premise was provided, it was clear where things were going to go, and Pullman pulls no clever surprises, or ever twists on the Sermons/Parables. He does point out the obvious moral conflicts in what Jesus says, but never does resolve them.

To its credit, the book is short and easily read in a couple of hours, but I wouldn't say it was a good use of my time. Go read His Dark Materials instead.