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Thursday, September 30, 2021

Review: Press Reset

 The subtitle of Press Reset is "Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry." I picked it up expecting light reading in the face of a Sylvia Plath biography, but unfortunately, the "Ruin" part of the book dominates the "Recovery" piece. The book essentially covers the shutdown of several well-known industry game studios, and the human cost of it. I've worked in game-industry adjacent companies in the past, to the extent that I've been loaned out to various game industry companies to help build games. My experiences talking to game industry cohorts closely reflects what you'll read about in this book: the game industry is rife with worker exploitation, uncertain outcomes, poor pay, and no share of success even if your game succeeds.

Now, there are several recent business model changes that have affected the game industry. The book outlines several of them, and is a good reminder of how fluid the industry is:

  • MMORPGs promised a lucrative subscription model. The problem is that there's only room for a couple of big MMORPGs, and it's difficult to break into it. (The book has a harrowing tale of 38 Studios shutting down suddenly, denying their workers their paychecks)
  • Indie games that are self-published provide a continuous stream of evergreen income rather than a single big hit that dissipates. That model, however, leaves all the risk to the authors, and is unable to sustain a big budget, high-fidelity game (it's the only "Recovery" story in the book, describing the team behind Enter the Gungeon)
  • Free-to-play (especially prevalent in mobile) theoretically provides a wide audience, but distorts game designs and especially is a poor mix with nostalgia reboots. The book describes Dungeon Keeper and  how it came to be so detested.
At the end of the book the author tries to propose ways to salvage the industry and prevent it from burning out so many employees. I view that as a lost cause: the entertainment industry in general has a line out the door of young people looking to make their mark and get famous, even if it doesn't make them rich. Without unionization (very  unlikely in the current environment), I doubt if any of the approaches described will be successful. That makes this book a useful cautionary tale for parents whose kids want to get into the game industry. Recommended.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Review: Continental GP5000 700x32

 Just before the 2019 Tour across Bavaria, I'd worn out all my Michelins and my Fairweather by Traveler tires. I replaced them with Continental GP5000 700x32 tires because those were the only high quality bicycle tires in that size I could find at the time. They survived the tour just fine and also did find for day touring, commuting to school, and all sorts of rides.

Then, at around 3500 miles on the tires, while climbing alpine road the rear tire blew out. Fortunately it was a climb, so we could stop the bike. We had to call Xiaoqin to deliver a new tire to us, and I rotated the front to back.

For reference, my previous Michelin 700x28s would last 1000 miles on the same bike, so to get 3X the life in exchange for about 2X the price is a good deal. On the other hand, a blow out can easily cause all sorts of injuries so my preference would be for a tire that only lasted 1200 miles, but didn't blow up spectacularly for the same price.

Michelin now makes the Power Road TLR in 700x32, which looks attractive, but it's a much heavier tire.  I will run through my remaining stock of GP5000s and hope someone makes a decent lightweight 700x32 tire.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review: Anthro VIsion

 I don't know how AnthroVision got onto my reading list, but I didn't realize until about a third into the book where I'd seen the name Gillian Tett before. Once she talked about the CDO/subprime crisis, however, I realized that I'd heard her on the radio and read her articles in the Financial Times about the mortgage crisis and how it worked. She was someone who'd covered the story even before it had blown up, and she was one of the credible people reporting on it.

The book's thesis is that anthropology is a hidden secret lens with which you can view the world, complementary to BigData (which can tell you correlation but not causation), and she does a good job describing the process of ethnography (I've long considered ethnography an under-utilized tool in business --- if you're a software engineer and you want to know how people are using your applications, there's no substitute for doing a user study --- and if you do it right, you're doing ethnography!). I loved the many business stories: there's one about how kit-kat became a cultural phenomenon in Japan (and also why there are many Japanese kit-kat flavors that cannot be found in the West), one about how one of the star managers of traders constantly rearranges the seating arrangements in the trading floor, and one about the rise of social-responsible equity investing.

But what caught my eye was the study an anthropologist of smart-phone addiction in teenagers:

As boyd sat in teenage bedrooms, she realized that the teenage middle-class American kids had striking attitudes toward time and space. A teenager called Maya in a middle-class suburb of Florida was typical. "Usually my mom will have things scheduled for me to do. So I really don't have much choice in what I am doing Friday nights," she told boyd, listing her extracurricular events: track, Czech lessons, orchestra, and working in a nursery. "I haven't had a free weekend in so long. I cannot even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over the weekend." A white sixteen-year-old named Nicholas, from Kansas, echoed this idea: he said he was not allowed to socialize with friends because his parents had packed his schedule full of sports. Jordan, a mixed-race fifteen-year-old living in a suburb of Austin, said she was barely allowed out of the house due to stranger danger. "My mom's from Mexico and she thinks I will get kidnapped," she explained. Natalie, a white fifteen-year-old in Seattle, told boyd that her parents would not let her walk anywhere. Amy, a biracial sixteen-year-old from Seattle, observed that "my Mom doesn't let me out of the house very often, so that's pretty much all I to people and text on the phone, 'cause my Mom's always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house." The parents backed this up. "Bottom line is that we live in a society of a parent I admit that I protect my daughter immensely and won't let my daughter go out to areas where I can't see her," said Enrique, a parent in Austin. "Am I being overprotective? Maybe. But it is the way it is...We keep her very busy without making it depressing."

The parents and teenagers considered these controls to be so normal that they barely commented on them---unless asked. But boyd knew that in earlier generations in America teenagers had been able to  congregate with friends, collide with acquaintances, and physically travel out of the house. As a teenager herself in 1980s Philadelphia boyd hung out at the local mall with other teenagers. Now the mall operators---and parents---were banning that. Teenagers were being excluded from other public places, such as parks or street corners, if they tried to congregate there in large groups. The contrast with even earlier eras was even more stark: in the mid-twentieth century it had been normal for teenagers to walk or cycle to school, congregate in fields, take part in "sock hops," stroll around town, travel between venues by themselves for jobs, or simply congregate in large groups on a street corner or in a field. "In 1969, 48 percent of all children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school compared to 12 percent who were driven by a family member," boyd noted. "By 2009, these numbers had reversed: 13 percent walked or bicycled while 45 percent were driven." Boyd does not make any moral judgements about these new constraints (although she does not that there is scant evidence that stranger danger has increased in recent years). But she told the Davos dinner that if you wanted to understand why teenagers used cell-phones, it was not sufficient to just look at phones or cyberspace. That was how parents and policy makers discussed the issue. So did the engineers when they designed phones; to them the physical real world of life outside a phone seemed less important than what happened inside it.

But while parents, policy makers, and techies ignored these real world, physical---non-phone---issues, they mattered. The reason was that controls in the tangible world made A"roaming" online doubly appealing; cyberspace was becoming the only place where teenagers could explore, wander, congregate with friends and acquaintances in large groups---or do what teenagers had always done in the real world---with freedom. Indeed, it was almost the only place where teenagers could push the boundaries, test limits, reshape their identity without "helicopter" parents watching them or the need to schedule an appointment into their busy schedules.

That did not absolve tech companies of responsibilities in relation to digital addiction: boyd knew that clever engineers were using "persuasion" technology to make apps appeal to people's brains. But it did mean that parents (or anybody else) had to acknowledge these physical controls if they wanted to understand why teens seemed addicted to their phones. Most people treated cyberspace as if it were a disembodied place and so they ignored the physical world. That was as much of a mistake as ignoring deivatives in finance before 2007. (pg. 144-146)

Wow. From an ethnographic examination of disparate families to draw the conclusion. Lots of computer scientists would sneer at this description  as "the plural of anecdote is not data", but would fail to realize that the big data approach to this problem would have completely missed the context of phone addiction. The need for teenagers to have autonomy and control over their schedule has been completely ignored by society, and it is the parents themselves who are to blame. And if you broadened the picture further, notice how the parents themselves felt like they had no control over the situation. Visit Europe and you have a completely different attitude:

Germans believe children have rights—or more precisely, Germans believe children have more rights than Americans are willing to give their children. The rights of children are encoded into German law and in the everyday actions of ordinary people. (Achtung Baby: Kindle loc 3427)

 I like Gillian Tett's thesis, and I think this book is well worth your time, whether you're a parent, manager, or just someone who believes the context matters to human behavior. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Review: The Wisdom of No Escape

 I came across The Wisdom of No Escape when someone read from it during a talk. The opening chapter was written with such wisdom and courage that I had to check the book out of the library:

There's a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we're committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we're going to run; we'll never know what's beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, "If I jog, I'll be a much better person." "If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person." "If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person." Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, "If it weren't for my husband, I'd have a perfect marriage." "If it weren't for the fact that my boss and I can't get on, my job would be just great." And "If it weren't for my mind, my meditation would be excellent."

But loving-kindness-maitri-toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already.  (pg. 1)

The book, then is a collection of lectures from a series of talks that Pema Chodron gave. I'm not a Buddhist, never was one, and probably never will be one, though of course as an East Asian, of all the religions I've encountered and studied, Buddhism is still by far the least objectionable, and most admirable in its steadfast refusal to evangelize, declare itself the sole possessor of universal truths, and its practitioners certainly aren't anti-science the way many middle eastern religions are (I'm talking of the obvious big 3 that the Western world obsess over) About the only objection I can raise to Buddhism, is that by allowing big businesses to co-opt those techniques, meditation appears to have been a way for corporate American to teach their employees to handle stress better, so that the corporation can extract more work out of them, or (as is often the case with good things), monetize them, or allow evil bosses to add even more stress to the employees since the employees can now handle stress better.

With those opening words, I was prepared to be disappointed. But I wasn't. The book is full of hilarious anecdotes, and a very human attention to humility. The author relates a story about Dainin Katagiri Roshi:

When he first came to the United States from Japan, he was a young monk in his late twenties. He had been a monk in Japan--where everything was so precise, so clean, and so neat--for a long time. In the U.S., his students were hippies with long unwashed hair and ragged clothes and no shoes. He didn't like them. He couldn't help it--he just couldn't stand those hippies. Their style offended everything in him. He said, "So all day I would give talks about compassion, and at night I would go home and weep and cry because I realized I had no compassion at all. Because I didn't like my students, therefore I had to work much harder to develop my heart." (pg. 8)

The book is short, but a lot of the lessons are essentially about self-compassion. It's about not beating yourself up about your feelings, or even about your past actions. The stories of (presumably famous) Buddhist teachers and the problems they faced and had to overcome, as well as the deliberate practice of their philosophies are great and add humanity in ways that make you realize that these are human beings doing their best to live their lives, but aren't we all? 

A lot of the book is repetitive. After all, it is a collection of lectures and sermons, and in many ways it approaches the same subject from different directions to give the students a deeper understanding of what those various Buddhist principles are. While those principles may never give you a solution for climate change (only scientists and engineers ultimately will solve those problems), they give you a sense that while Western societies led by middle-eastern religions will break down, go to war, and  blame other people for their problems, the Buddhists will still be there, suffering along with everyone else, but never letting it affect who they are or letting the external world take away their humanity. If that doesn't make Buddhism a comparatively admirable religion, I don't know what would.

In any case, the language, the clarity of prose, and the anecdotes make for so much fun reading that I strongly urge you to read them. I'm not a Buddhist and I still enjoyed this book thoroughly. Recommended.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Review: Noise - A Flaw in Human Judgement

 Noise is a book about human judgement. The book's unique perspective about judgement is that judgement is an attempt to use the human mind as an instrument. Of course, the human mind is unreliable. Your judgement is not just biased as a result of your lived experience, but also inconsistent --- your decisions about important things (e.g., judges sentencing someone) could be affected by the weather, your internal state of hunger, and and whether or not you just had a spat with your spouse:

Eliminating bias from a set of judgments will not eliminate all error. The errors that remain when bias is removed are not shared. They are the unwanted divergence of judgments, the unreliability of the measuring instrument we apply to reality. They are noise. Noise is variability in judgments that should be identical. (Kindle loc 5183)

 The early part of the book establishes several things:

  • Many simple algorithms outperform expert humans (e.g. mechanical diagnostic rules outperform many doctors) purely because they're consistent
  • Machine learning algorithms do even better, but not by a lot
  • Humans are unforgiving of algorithms once they've seen that it makes a mistake (this is why self-driving cars don't merely have to match the standard of driving that humans achieved to be accepted --- they have to outperform humans in nearly all situations)
  • It's sexy to have an anti-bias program, but unsexy to talk about noise. But from the point of view of judgement errors, they have the same impact, and it's easier to fix noise than to fix bias

people are willing to give an algorithm a chance but stop trusting it as soon as they see that it makes mistakes. On one level, this reaction seems sensible: why bother with an algorithm you can’t trust? As humans, we are keenly aware that we make mistakes, but that is a privilege we are not prepared to share. We expect machines to be perfect. If this expectation is violated, we discard them. Because of this intuitive expectation, however, people are likely to distrust algorithms and keep using their judgment, even when this choice produces demonstrably inferior results. This attitude is deeply rooted and unlikely to change until near-perfect predictive accuracy can be achieved. Fortunately, much of what makes rules and algorithms better can be replicated in human judgment.(kindle loc 1917)

One interesting thing is that there are people who exhibit less noise than others. This was covered by Philip Tetlock in his research on political experts and predictions. The super-forecasters have one particular characteristic that's important:

 To be actively open-minded is to actively search for information that contradicts your preexisting hypotheses. Such information includes the dissenting opinions of others and the careful weighing of new evidence against old beliefs. Actively open-minded people agree with statements like this: “Allowing oneself to be convinced by an opposing argument is a sign of good character.” They disagree with the proposition that “changing your mind is a sign of weakness” or that “intuition is the best guide in making decisions.” In other words, while the cognitive reflection and need for cognition scores measure the propensity to engage in slow and careful thinking, actively open-minded thinking goes beyond that. It is the humility of those who are constantly aware that their judgment is a work in progress and who yearn to be corrected. We will see in chapter 21 that this thinking style characterizes the very best forecasters, who constantly change their minds and revise their beliefs in response to new information. Interestingly, there is some evidence that actively open-minded thinking is a teachable skill. (location 3300)

(Incidentally, if you read that description of an actively open-minded person carefully, you'll note that there's one profession where that trait is not only encouraged, but it is essential: scientists!) 

The second half of the book discusses how to get rid of noise, or at least, reduce it. Much like "how to lose weight," you may find that you already know most of the techniques, and are already using it in some arenas (such as hiring and interviewing):

  1. Structure your decisions. By splitting off the decision into multiple facets, deciding on criteria and rating each facet separately, you prevent the halo effect of one particularly outstanding facet overshadow your ability to independently assess your other facets. (when interviewing candidates, you get each person interviewing those candidates to focus on a different facet to assess)
  2. Humans are better at ranking decisions than at absolute comparisons. It is far better to have a few instances for people to compare against, than to try to construct a scale that everyone agrees on. For instance, you might think that on a scale of 1 to 10, a 10 means "in the top 10%", but someone else might never give a 10, because to her, a 10 means "perfect", and nothing is ever perfect. But given a list of examples, it's probably easier for two people to agree that X is a better engineer than Y, who is in turn better than Z.
  3. When it comes to group decisions, ensure that there is independence between people who are assessing the decision. Rather than doing a round-table discussion, make everyone write down what their assessment, and show aggregate/anonymized sentiment charts before starting the discussion. This will allow contrarian folks to see that the "groupthink" sentiment might not be as dominant as it seems from a purely verbal discussion, and prevents corrupting later speakers with the opinions of the early speakers.
  4. When you don't have a group to make a decision, take advantage of the inconsistency of your own judgement by separating the facets and making assessments at different times, writing them down, and integrating your judgement on different days. This gives you a chance to average out the noise in your judgement.
  5. Appoint a bias observer with a checklist to look for fallacies in decision making. (There's a sample checklist in the book)
  6. Treat a one-time decision as though it's a recurring decision that's made once. It's worth the effort to break it down and structure it as though it's going to happen again.
  7. When picking a team to make decisions, it's better to pick a team with a diverse set of skills than to rank order who are great decision makers and just pick the top N.
Did I just summarize the book so you don't have to read it? No. Much of the book discusses the complexity involved in the above rules. For instance, in rule 2, they discuss:

Many executives object to the notion that nearly all employees can meet expectations. If so, they argue, the expectations must be too low, perhaps because of a culture of complacency. Admittedly this interpretation may be valid, but it is also possible that most employees really do meet high expectations. Indeed, this is exactly what we would expect to find in a high-performance organization. You would not sneer at the leniency of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s performance management procedures if you heard that all the astronauts on a successful space mission have fully met expectations. (kindle loc 4192)

 a system that depends on relative evaluations is appropriate only if an organization cares about relative performance. For example, relative ratings might make sense when, regardless of people’s absolute performance, only a fixed percentage of them can be promoted—think of colonels being evaluated for promotion to general. But forcing a relative ranking on what purports to measure an absolute level of performance, as many companies do, is illogical. And mandating that a set percentage of employees be rated as failing to meet (absolute) expectations is not just cruel; it is absurd. It would be foolish to say that 10% of an elite unit of the army must be graded “unsatisfactory.” (kindle loc 4196)

In discussing having a decision/bias observer, they note:

 A decision observer is not an easy role to play, and no doubt, in some organizations it is not realistic. Detecting biases is useless if the ultimate decision makers are not committed to fighting them. Indeed, the decision makers must be the ones who initiate the process of decision observation and who support the role of the decision observer. We certainly do not recommend that you make yourself a self-appointed decision observer. You will neither win friends nor influence people. (kindle loc 3400)

 The authors observe that performance systems at most companies not just suck, but are actively counter-productive:

if you do measure performance, your performance ratings have probably been pervaded by system noise and, for that reason, they might be essentially useless and quite possibly counterproductive. Reducing this noise is a challenge that cannot be solved by simple technological fixes. It requires clear thinking about the judgments that raters are expected to make. Most likely, you will find that you can improve judgments by clarifying the rating scale and training people to use it consistently. This noise-reduction strategy is applicable in many other fields. Speaking of Defining the Scale “We spend a lot of time on our performance ratings, and yet the results are one-quarter performance and three-quarters system noise.” “We tried 360-degree feedback and forced ranking to address this problem, but we may have made things worse.” “If there is so much level noise, it is because different raters have completely different ideas of what ‘good’ or ‘great’ means. They will only agree if we give them concrete cases as anchors on the rating scale.” (kindle loc 4257)

Do I have criticisms of this book? Yes. It's frequently repetitive, and the authors clearly stitched together the book by writing various sections separately. As a result, one section of the book will repeat items from a previous section of the book. By the time you've finished the book, you'll feel as though a dead horse has been both beaten and flogged.

But this is such an important topic, and has such wide applicability (Which candidate do we hire? Which employee should we promote? Which job offer should you take? Which graduate school do you attend? Which car do you buy?) , and current practices so poor (think about how infrequently we structure even major decisions like an acquisition) that the book is very valuable in forcing you to slow down and think hard about how the process of making decisions. The culture today prizes intuition, and the book points out that trying to take out intuition will lead to a backlash and might not be desirable anyway, but instead, the correct approach should be to delay the use of intuition until it's been fully informed through a valid process. Only then can intuition lead to your best available decision. The book points out that the process need not be slow, and provides many case studies on how it can be used.

That makes this book important and valuable reading, both in business and in personal life. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review: Keen Aimea H2 Flip-Flops

 I've been a long time user of the Keen sandals. The toe protection is great, and they're the ideal shoe for casual summer outings like walking to the grocery store, etc. What they are not is fast. They're not fast to put on or take off (they're faster than laced shoes, but I've long given up on those).

The idea of flip flops are great, but when I saw the Waimea H2 with toe protection I thought to myself, wow. These are a good idea. I got a pair to try, and they're light, around 200g for a pair, about half the weight of the regular Keens. So I found myself bringing them on the Glacier National Park trip rather than my usual Keens.

They're still too bulky and heavy to bring on a 3 day backpacking trip where I'm the person stuck carrying all the food, but for doing things where I'm likely to get my feet wet, they're great. You still aren't going to use them for white water rafting or kayaking, but walking to the beach, going to and from the swimming pool, or even messing around in the garage they're great. And toe protection is nice and makes them quite different from other flip flops. They're absurdly expensive for flip-flops, but the premium is well justified for the toe protection that no other flip flops give you.


Monday, September 13, 2021

Review: Messy - The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

 Messy is Tim Harford's book about messiness. It's a surprisingly wide-ranging book covering many topics. For instance, when evaluating scientist productivity, Harford notes:

The top scientists switched topics frequently. Over the course of their first hundred published papers, the long-lived high-impact researchers switched topics an average of forty-three times. The leaps were less dramatic than the ones Erez Aiden likes to take, but the pattern is the same; the top scientists keep changing the subject if they wish to stay productive. Erez Aiden is less of an outlier than one might think. As Brian Eno says, the friend of creative work is alertness, and nothing focuses your attention like stepping onto unfamiliar ground. (kindle loc 397)

Then there's a great section about how outstanding games are built not by a single team, but by a network of teams:

 outstanding games were forged by networks of teams. The social networks behind these games contained several different clusters, groups of people who had worked together many times before and so had the trust and commitment and mutual understanding necessary to pull long hours in pursuit of a shared goal. But the networks were also diverse, in the sense that each of these teams was different from the others, having worked on very different projects in the past. This is not conventional social bridging, where a tidily packaged idea is carried from one cluster of people to a distinct cluster of people, where the idea can be used profitably in a fresh context. Instead, the researchers were uncovering creative tension, where two or three tightly bonded teams with very different creative histories had to find a way to work together over an extended period to produce something quite new. That sounds exciting, and it’s not a shock to hear that the cognitive diversity of the teams was an asset, nor that close-knit teams could achieve remarkable things. But the greater effectiveness of networks of diverse teams, knitted together at what Vedres calls “structural folds,” comes at a cost. “Structural folds shorten the lifespan of teams,” he says. “They fall apart much quicker. The instability comes from different sources. Maybe there are concerns about loyalty, or perhaps just scheduling conflicts. But such groups fall apart much faster than a random baseline.”... The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogenous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. (kindle loc 640-780)

In other words, the cost of diversity is discomfort, but that discomfort is highly generative. To the extent that such teams fall apart faster, that diversity might also be responsible. This partly explains why despite organizational platitudes to improve diversity, in real life we find limited progress --- the increased effectiveness is there, but offset by the discomfort which get teams to fall apart faster.

 There's a great section about buildings that support collaboration and creativity. It turns out that the successful buildings are not the ones that were designed to foster creativity --- it turns out that designers and architects don't know how to do that. The successful buildings are the ones that are so cheap that the people in the building feel like they have autonomy to reconfigure and modify it:

Nobody would have guessed, and nobody tried to guess, either. The hodgepodge of Building 20 was the result of simple expedience and neglect. Where did MIT put disciplines that didn’t fit, researchers who had no clout, projects that made no money, student hobbyists, and anything and anyone else that just didn’t seem to matter? In the cheapest, nastiest space they could find. If Building 20 hadn’t been a mess, these strange collaborations might never have happened. Another key element of Building 20’s success was that the space was easy to reconfigure. Its services—water, phones, electricity—were exposed, running along the corridor ceilings, supported by brackets. This was ugly but convenient. Researchers thought nothing of tapping into them directly for whatever experimental needs they had. Paul Penfield, a longtime occupant of Building 20, recalled: “You know that if you want to run a wire from one room to another, you don’t call Physical Plant, you don’t plunk down a thousand dollars to call an electrician and a carpenter, instead you get out a power drill or a screwdriver, and you jam it through the wall, and you string the wire, and you take care of things right away, and you do it in one afternoon, rather than waiting six months for a purchase order to come through.” ...Building 20’s true advantage wasn’t so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “Nobody cares what you do in there.” (kindle loc 1190-1203)

There's another section about how automated systems that are only partially autonomous are the worst systems for humans to use:

 automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent—his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely without being detected. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for them to practice. Third, automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations, requiring a particularly skillful human response. For each of these three strands, a more capable and reliable automatic system makes the situation worse. (kindle loc 2692)

 There's another section about Erwin Rommel, about how he would eschew planning, sow chaos on the battlefield, and rely on his ability to improvise faster than the enemy. But by far my favorite section is the discussion of the difference between people who pile up paperwork on their desks (me), and the people who relentlessly tidy up:

“We predicted that filers’ attempts to evaluate and categorize incoming documents would produce smaller archives that were accessed frequently,” they wrote. But that isn’t what they found. The filers didn’t have lean archives full of useful and oft-accessed documents; they had capacious cabinets full of neatly filed paper that they never used. The filers were filing prematurely. In an effort to keep their desks clear, they would swiftly file documents that turned out to have no long-term value. In their bloated archives it was hard to find anything useful, despite the logical organization, because the good stuff was surrounded with neatly filed dross. The Borges problem made things harder—as one person told Whittaker and Hirschberg: “I had so much stuff filed. I didn’t know where everything was, and I’d found that I had created second files for something in what seemed like a logical place, but not the only logical place . . . In some cases, things could legitimately be filed under the business unit or a technology. And I ended up having the same thing in two places, or I had the same business unit stuff in five different places.”..The pilers, in contrast, would keep documents on their desks for a while and sooner or later would pick them up, realize they were useless, and dump them in the recycling bin. Any archives were small and practical and frequently used. When the time came for the office move, the pilers had an easy job—they simply kept the top half of every pile and discarded the rarely used lower documents. (It’s that informal Noguchi system again.) The biggest disadvantage that the pilers suffered was that because their offices looked so messy, somebody else might sneak in and tidy everything up, a ruinous act of vandalism. (kindle loc 3476-3486)

In other words, the idiots at the office who keep at you to tidy up your desk? They're wrong. You're much more efficient  than the people who proactively file stuff. I thought that was great. Similarly, this effect extends to over-planning. People who plan everything down to the minute are actually less effective than people who do not planning, but people who organize a monthly plan are more effective than both. In other words, you should set goals, but not micro-manage how you get there:

 The daily plans were catastrophic. Students using them started by working 20 hours a week but by the end of the course they were down to about 8 hours a week. Having no plan at all was just as bad, although arguably it encouraged more consistent work effort: students began by working 15 hours a week and sagged to 10 hours a week later in the course. But the monthly plans were a tremendous success in motivating students to study—they put in 25 hours a week, and even studied slightly harder at the end of the 10-week course than at the beginning. These are huge effects—the monthly plan motivated about twice as much work as the daily plan. When the researchers followed up a year later, these trends had continued and were reflected in the students’ grades: the students with monthly plans were doing better than ever, the students with no plans were treading water, and the students with daily plans were sliding ever further down the scale of academic achievement. (Kindle loc 3533)

The reasons are what you would expect: rigid plans can't anticipate the unexpected, and as a result once you fall behind there are no ways to catch up, and worse, you demoralize yourself.

The book gets even better as it discusses why match-making/dating apps algorithms don't work (other than the obvious disincentive --- a customer that gets matched on a dating site stops producing revenue, while someone who keeps having bad dates keeps their subscription active). There's even a section on dangerous adventurous playgrounds. I myself observed this --- kids who're otherwise whiny and dependent at home suddenly start taking responsibility and pay attention to the park ranger's briefing when told that they might face natural hazards such as bears.

schools opened up nearby unused land for primary-age children to roam free in during breaks. There were no more serious injuries than when the children played in their conventional playgrounds—indeed, there were fewer. And other results were dramatic: when they returned to the classroom from their feral wanderings, their behavior was better. They paid attention in class. Bullying fell to the extent that the school abolished a “time-out” room and halved the number of teachers on duty at playtime.44 (kindle loc 3866)

This is a great book. Whether you're a parent, manager, or just someone who owns a messy desk, you owe it to make the time to read it. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Review: The Data Detective

 The Data Detective is Tim Harford's response to "How to Lie with Statistics". What surprised me the most about the book was the information in the first chapters, where Harford reveals that the latter book was written for the purposes of obfuscating the link between cancer and tobacco use. In other words, it was designed to make the public distrust statistics in favor of smoking.

Harford's response in the book is that truth is far more interesting than lying, and the principles behind discovering the truth are universal (and to be honest, not different from the scientific method) and do a better job of protecting you from misinformation than blithe rules. In some sense, the book didn't meet my expectations, because I expected some sort of overview or explanation of statistics, but all I got instead was a series of rules about lying to yourself and how to prevent that.

However, I quickly forgave Harford that. The stories in the books are just too good:

I had a little chuckle about the Tom Peters and Robert Waterman book In Search of Excellence, a blockbusting business bestseller published in 1982, which offered management lessons gleaned from studying forty-three of the most outstanding corporations of that time. If they really were paragons of brilliant management, then one might have expected their success to last. If instead they were the winners of an invisible lottery, the beneficiaries of largely random strokes of good fortune, then we would expect that the good luck would often fail to last. Sure enough, within two years almost a third of them were in serious financial trouble. It’s easy to mock Peters and Waterman—and people did—but the truth is that a healthy economy has a lot of churn in it. Corporate stars rise, and burn out. Sometimes they have lasting qualities, sometimes fleeting ones, and sometimes no qualities at all, bar some luck. By all means look at the success stories and try to learn lessons, but be careful. It is easy, in Nassim Taleb’s memorable phrase, to be “fooled by randomness.” (kindle loc 1858)

 Over the course of eighteen years, the nineteenth-century German doctor Carl Wunderlich assembled over a million measurements of body temperature, gathered from more than 25,000 patients. A million measurements! It’s a truly staggering achievement given the pen-and-paper technology of the day. Wunderlich is the man behind the conventional wisdom that normal body temperature is 98.6°F. Nobody wanted to gainsay his findings, partly because the dataset was large enough to command respect, and partly because the prospect of challenging it with a bigger, better dataset was intimidating. As Dr. Philip Mackowiak, an expert on Wunderlich, put it, “Nobody was in a position or had the desire to amass a dataset that large.”12 Yet Wunderlich’s numbers were off; we’re normally a little cooler (by about half a Fahrenheit degree).13 So formidable were his data that it took more than a hundred years to establish that the good doctor had been in error.* (kindle loc 2507)

Hardford's rules include making sure that the data collected is not subject to selection bias, that it defines its terms correctly, that it's not subject to p-hacking (yes, there's a section on the reproducibility crisis), and that the  data is inspectable and subject to audits, open-source style.

The closing of the chapter provides hope that the way to defeat misinformation is by engaging people's curiosity:

After a long and fruitless search for an antidote to tribalism, Kahan could be forgiven for becoming jaded.5 Yet a few years ago, to his surprise, he and his colleagues stumbled upon a trait that some people have—and that other people can be encouraged to develop—that inoculates us against this toxic polarization. On the most politically polluted, tribal questions, where intelligence and education fail, this trait does not. And if you’re desperately, burningly curious to know what it is—congratulations. You may be inoculated already. Curiosity breaks the relentless pattern. Specifically, Kahan identified “scientific curiosity.” That’s different from scientific literacy. The two qualities are correlated, of course, but there are curious people who know rather little about science (yet), and highly trained people with little appetite to learn more...The scientifically curious people Kahan’s team studied were originally identified with simple questions, buried in a marketing survey so that people weren’t conscious that their curiosity was being measured. One question, for example, was “How often do you read science books?” Scientifically curious people are more interested in watching a documentary about space travel or penguins than a basketball game or a celebrity gossip show. And they didn’t just answer survey questions differently, they also made different choices in the psychology lab. In one experiment, participants were shown a range of headlines about climate change and invited to pick the “most interesting” article to read...Scientifically curious people—Republicans or Democrats—were different. They were happy to grab an article that ran counter to their preconceptions, as long as it seemed surprising and fresh. And once you’re actually reading the article, there’s always a chance that it might teach you something. (Kindle Loc 4009-4037)

And of course, that's what luminaries like Carl Sagan have been doing all along. They were smarter than everyone gave them credit for. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book, and am going on to read more Harford.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Review: 5 in 1 Can/Jar Opener Kit

 During the pandemic, we've become addicted to those huge jars of artichoke hearts from Costco, both to add to salad and to use on a pizza. The problem is that those jars come very tightly sealed. Physics gives you 2 tricks: one, submerge the mouth of the jar in hot water, and take advantage of the fact that the coefficient of expansion in heat is higher for the metal cap than it is for the glass jar. That worked for about a year, before I found a jar that was just way too tight to open.

The 5 in 1 Jar opener kit uses the second physics trick, which is to use a longer lever. The lever has plenty of detents for various sizes of jars, and the Kirkland jars use the biggest one. I was really skeptical when I discovered that when used in that position, I could barely get a grip at the long end of the lever. To my surprise, due to the increased leverage, it didn't actually take much effort to open!

I'm keeping these. My days of using the hot water trick are over!

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Review: Dreams/Art's Dream (PS5)

Dreams (PS5) is a game construction kit. I don't actually have time to construct games, no matter how easy to use the construction kit is, but the distinctive style of Media Molecule was such that when the priced dropped to $10 on a sale I bought it just to play the pack-in game (which took me a good 5-6 hours).

Media Molecule's mixed media art style is so distinctive that even though Bowen stopped playing Tearaway when he was 6, he still recognized the style and said it must be the same people who made Tearaway.

Boen and I tried a few community-contributed levels and mini-games, but to be honest, I think few non-professionals have the time or ability to polish a game to the point where it's compelling to play, so after watching a few music videos and playing a few unfinished adventures we gave up and just went all-in on Art's Dream.

Art's Dream was clearly designed as a showcase/demo for what could be done with Dream's game creation engine. The playstyle would flip from 3-D platformer to 2-D shooter, to point-and-click puzzle-adventure, and then to a flying or racing style game. It's quite clear that the underlying engine is versatile and capable. The music is beautiful, and the story while kind of cliche (though it happily drew in Boen and Bowen, when Bowen wasn't pretending to be too cool for Media Molecule games), did not suck. I had a great time. And because it's a Media Molecule game, I knew that every level was doable even by someone who wasn't 9-years old (unlike for instance, any Nintendo game I ever encountered) within an afternoon.

I enjoyed the heck out of the game and wished it was just a little longer when I finished. That meant it was perfect. Recommended.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Review: Project Hail Mary

 Project Hail Mary is Andy Weir's latest novel.  This is classic science fiction: a threat to the sun has launched a desperate, suicide mission to save the sun, and Dr. Ryland Grace is the last man standing on his mission, the Hail Mary, a purpose-built ship to figure out how to stop the impending disaster that's both a research mission and a rescue mission.

The novel combines many aspects of science fiction novels that I love:

  1. The protagonist is a scientist, as well as an engineer, and thinks rationally through all problems. The depiction of desperate debugging, jury-rigging solutions, and considering all theoretical possibilities will appeal to any STEM folks.
  2. It's also a first-contact story, and an excellent one as well. Every tool available to a modern human is available to the protagonist, and there's no idiocy involved. The biological differences between the species make sense, and all sorts of puzzles are not left as mere fantasy. The author addresses all scientific issues that are rasied.
Every page of this book is exciting and a compelling read, as is the science. The most unrealistic part of the book is the part where the entire planet comes together and gives a scientific administrator full control in order to create and launch the Hail Mary. In this day of conspiracy theories and anti-science, I can't imagine that actually happening.

You can bet that if that's the only flaw in the book, this book easily makes it the best novel I've read in years. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Review: 3M Aura Particulate Respirator 9205+N95

 I have been struggling for ages to get a good masking solution to work with glasses. The lens coating my optometrist recommended sort of worked, but  ultimately what it proved to me was that the surgical masks and KN95 masks that I'd been using were just inadequate and leaky.

Someone on the xooglers mailing list recommended the 3M Aura. These are true N95 masks and I assume that since Amazon has them, I'm not taking them from essential personnel. They're expensive at $2 each, and come in a box with each of them individually sealed. Take them out and you see the huge difference between the true N95 masks and the KN95 masks: instead of ear loops, these have headbands, going all the way around the head. They are a 3 panel construction, with a nose piece that must be moulded by hand to your nose to ensure a perfect seal.

The true test is to take them on a vigorous bike ride, during smoke season. I took them on a one hour bike ride and went as hard as I could. I went so hard that not only was I sweating, after about 30 minutes, I could feel water condensation around my mouth inside the mask. I didn't feel like I could work as hard as without a mask, but at no point did my glasses fog up, and the discomfort was tolerable, at least for an hour.  I didn't smell any smoke through the mask. The mask was wet but not soaked after the ride. I could definitely wear these all day on a plane if I had to, and I wish I could get the kids to wear them in school, but they got used to their cloth masks and (like all kids) think that they're invincible.

These are awesome. I can't see myself going back to KN95 or cloth masks ever again. If you or your loved ones are indoors for any amount of time you owe it to them to get and use them.