Monthly Archives: May 2009

Fixing the US economy

Since everyone else has an opinion on this, I’ll make it brief: Three ways to vastly improve the US economy:

  • Federal gas tax. The fuel-efficiency rules recently put in place will spawn lots of innovation into ways to get around them (engine upgrade kits, anyone?). A federal gas tax is easy to apply, forces all automakers to do something with their engines, reduces the demand for transportation (hence, stimulates local production) and reduces dependence on foreign oil and foreign loans.
  • Federal calorie tax, to apply not just to sugar-sweetened drinks (again, something that encourages all kinds of fiddling), but to any high-caloric, non-nutritional food substance, including high-fructose corn syrup. America is dangerously overweight, and one reason is that good food is expensive and junk food is not only cheap, but in many cases subsidized. Taxing to reduce the consumption of obviously bad and unnecessary stuff makes all kinds of sense. I am less certain whether it makes sense to subsidize the good stuff – too much bureaucracy, and too many discussions.
  • Encourage house-buying immigrants. Granting VISAs to a million families or two, provided they buy a house, should be a much needed shot in the arm. The USA is not even close to being overpopulated, and a fresh new crop of resourceful immigrants is just what the doctor might order. Get to it.

There, that was easy. The rest is a small matter of implementation, which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

And, as Piet Hein said, if you take humor only for laughter and seriousness only seriously, you have misunderstood both….

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Fixing and fixability as attribute and philosophy

Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands has made the top of the NY Times website, and well deservedly so. His argument is that physical work, especially diagnostic worked involved in solving technical problems, are as fulfilling and intellectually stimulating as any desk job, though the hours may be longer and your fingers dirtier. For instance, you have think about your angle of attack not just in terms of the likelihood of being right, but the cost of finding out:

The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process. Mechanics face something like this problem in the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Sounds like a good consultant to me. And the right kind of academic.

Buying an old Mercedes has certainly taught me something about expertise. I first tried taking it to the largest Mercedes dealer in Boston, whose reps took in the car wearing white coats and were utterly useless: The customer service rep had never heard of this particular model (it was the flagship at the time,) the computer system could not deal with cars before 1982, and come to think of it, the rep didn’t know much about cars in general. The mechanics seemed to be looking for a place to stick the computer diagnostic tool, nearly destroyed the suspension and tried to solve problems by "Easter Egging" – i.e., replacing parts until the problem disappears. Eventually I found a company that had both the knowledge of the car and the diagnostic philosophy required – to listen to the problem and determine what it is based on the few symptoms a car really has to give. What a relief – and what a fulfilling job it must be to work like that.

A colleague of mine remarked, a few weeks ago, that "nobody repairs anything anymore." A few years ago I bought my wife a nice everyday watch, a Seiko with a stainless steel chain. The chain broke, she took it in, and was told that the cost of fixing the chain would be so high that it would be better to just replace the watch. The watch was not designed to be repaired.

What little work I have been able to do on my old Mercedes has been joyful, since the car is designed to be fixed – the screws are solid (no plastic clips that rot over time) and accessible, everything is laid out with some logic, and if you sit down and think about it, you can figure the technology out (with, for me, the exception of the automatic gear boxes, which I don’t understand and wouldn’t have the tools and space to do anything with anyway.)

Crawford continues:

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate.

This is one reason I sometimes envy people who do "mere" programming for a living – the ability to have problems that have solutions, tell you when they are solved, and reward the laser-like focus both on the detail and the broader reflection (and abstraction) necessary to see the bigger picture. The problem-solving I am involved with on a daily basis is less a question of understanding what to do than it is a question of finding a way to express the solution in a way that convinces those who hold the key to it to actually do it. Assertiveness certainly helps, but, boy, would I love to just tinker for a while.

Anyway, I have but scratched the beginning of Crawford’s argument, but hey, I think I have gotten the gist of it. The rest I leave you to read on your own.

The datacenter is the new mainframe

From Greg Linden comes a link and a reference to a very interesting book by two Google engineers: The Datacenter as a Computer: An Introduction to the Design of Warehouse-Scale Machines (PDF, 2.8Mb) by Luiz André Barroso and Urs Hölzle. This is a fascinating introduction to data center design, with useful discussions of architecture, how to do cooling and reduce power use (it turns out, for instance, that getting computers that use power proportionally to their level of use is extremely important).

I suspect that even highly experienced data center designers will find something useful here. The book is written for someone with some degree of technical expertise, but you do not need a deep background in computer science to find much here that is interesting and useful.

One of my recurring ideas (and I am by no means alone in thinking this) is that the Norwegian west coast, with its cool climate, relatively abundant hydroelectric energy and underused industrial infrastructure (we used to have lots of electrochemical and electrometallurgical plants) could be a great place to do most of Europe’s computing. Currently we sell our electric energy to Europe through power lines, which incurs a large energy loss. Moving data centers to Norway and distributing their functionality through fiberoptic cables seems a much more effective way of doing things to me, especially since that region of the country has a reasonable supply both of energy engineers and industrial workers with the skill set and discipline to run that kind of operation.

Now, if I could only find some investors…

From links to seeds: Edging towards the semantic web

Wolfram Alpha just may take us one step closer to the elusive Semantic Web, by evolving a communication protocol out of its query terms.

(this is very much in ruminating form – comments welcome)

Wolfram Alpha officially launched on May 18, an exciting new kind of "computational" search engine which, rather than looking up documents where your questions have been answered before, actually computes the answer. The difference, as Stephen Wolfram himself has said, is that if you ask what the distance is to the moon, Google and other search engines will find you documents that tells you the average distance, whereas Wolfram Alpha will calculate what the distance is right now, and tell you that, in addition to many other facts (such as the average). Wolfram Alpha does not store answers, but creates them every time. And it does primarily answer numerical, computable questions.

The difference between Google (and other search engines) and Wolfram Alpha is not so clear-cut, of course. If you ask Google "17 mpg in liters per 100km" it will calculate the result for you. And you can send Wolfram Alpha non-computational queries such as "Norway" and it will give an informational answer. The difference lies more in what kind of data the two services work against, and how they determine what to show you: Google crawls the web, tracking links and monitoring user responses, in a sense asking every page and every user of their services what they think about all web pages (mostly, of course, we don’t think anything about most of them, but in principle we do.) Wolfram Alpha works against a database of facts with a set of defined computational algorithms – it stores less and derives more. (That being said, they will both answer the question "what is the answer to life, the universe and everything" the same way….)

While the technical differences are important and interesting, the real difference between WA and Google lies in what kind of questions they can answer – to use Clayton Christensen’s concept, the different jobs you would hire them to do. You would hire Google to figuring out information, introduction, background and concepts – or to find that email you didn’t bother filing away in the correct folder. You would hire Alpha to answer precise questions and get the facts, rather than what the web collectively has decided is the facts.

The meaning of it all

Now – what will the long-term impact of Alpha be? Google has made us replace categorization with search – we no longer bother filing things away and remembering them, for we can find them with a few half-remembered keywords, relying on sophisticated query front-end processing and the fact that most of our not that great minds think depressingly alike. Wolfram Alpha, on the other hand, is quite a different animal. Back in the 80s, I once saw someone exhort their not very digital readers to think of the personal computer as a "friendly assistant who is quite stupid in everything but mathematics."  Wolfram Alpha is quite a bit smarter than that, of course, but the fact is that we now have access to this service which, quite simply, will do the math and look up the facts for us. Our own personal Hermione Granger, as it is.

I think the long-term impact of Wolfram Alpha will be to further something that may not have started with Google, but certainly became apparent with them: The use of search terms (or, if you will, seeds) as references. It is already common to, rather than writing out a URL, to help people find something by saying "Google this and you will find it". I have a couple of blogs and a web page, but googling my name will get you there faster (and you can misspell my last name and still not miss.) The risk in doing that, of course, is that something can intervene. As I read (in this paper) General Motors, a few years ago, had an ad for a new Pontiac model, at the end of which they exhorted the audience to "Google Pontiac" to find out more. Mazda quickly set up a web page with Pontiac in it, bought some keywords on Google, and quite literally Shanghaied GM’s ad.

Wolfram Alpha, on the other hand, will, given the same input, return the same answer every time. If the answer should change, it is because the underlying data has changed (or, extremely rarely, because somebody figured out a new way of calculating it.) It would not be because someone external to the company has figured out a way to game the system. This means that we can use references to Wolfram Alpha as shorthand – enter "budget surplus" in Wolfram Alpha, and the results will stare you in the face. In the sense that math is a language for expressing certain concepts in a very terse and precise language, Wolfram Alpha seeds will, I think, emerge as a notation for referring to factual information.

A short detour into graffiti

Back in the early-to-mid-90s, Apple launched one of the first pen-based PDAs, the Apple Newton. The Newton was, for its time, an amazing technology, but for once Apple screwed it up, largely because they tried to make the device do too much. One important issue was the handwriting recognition software – it would let you write in your own handwriting, and then try to interpret it. I am a physician’s son, and I certainly took after my father in the handwriting department. Newton could not make sense of my scribbles, even if I tried to behave, and, given that handwriting recognition is hard, it took a long time doing it. I bought one, and then sent it back. Then the Palm Pilot came, and became the device to get.

The Palm Pilot did not recognize handwriting – it demanded that you, the user, wrote to it in a sign language called Graffiti, which recognized individual characters. Most of the characters resembled the regular characters enough that you could guess what they were, for the others you either had to consult a small plastic card or experiment. The feedback was rapid, to experimenting usually worked well, and pretty soon you had learned – or, rather, your hand had learned – to enter the Graffiti characters rapidly and accurately.

Wolfram Alpha works in the same way as Graffiti did: As Steven Wolfram says in his talk at the Berkman Center, people start out writing natural language but pretty quickly trim it down to just the key concepts (a process known in search technology circles as "anti-phrasing".) In other words, by dint of patience and experimentation, we (or, at least, some of us) will learn to write queries in a notation that Wolfram Alpha understands, much like our hands learned Graffiti.

From links to seeds to semantics

Semantics is really about symbols and shorthand – a word is created as shorthand for a more complicated concept by a process of internalization. When learning a language, rapid feedback helps (which is why I th
ink it is easier to learn a language with a strict and terse grammar rather than a permissive one), simplicity helps, and a structure and culture that allows for creating new words by relying on shared context and intuitive combinations (see this great video with Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross on language creation for some great examples.)

And this is what we need to do – gather around Wolfram Alpha and figure out the best way of interacting with the system -and then conduct "what if" analysis of what happens if we change the input just a little. To a certain extent, it is happening already, starting with people finding Easter Eggs – little jokes developers leave in programs for users to find. Pretty soon we will start figuring out the notation, and you will see web pages use Wolfram Alpha queries first as references, then as modules, then as dynamic elements.

It is sort of quirky when humans start to exchange query seeds (or search terms, if you will).  It gets downright interesting when computers start doing it. It would also be part of an ongoing evolution of gradually increasing meaningfulness of computer messaging.

When computers – or, if you will, programs – needed to exchange information in the early days, they did it in a machine-efficient manner – information was passed using shared memory addresses, hexadecimal codes, assembler instructions and other terse and efficient, but humanly unreadable encoding schemes. Sometime in the early 80s, computers were getting powerful enough that the exchanges gradually could be done in human-readable format – the SMTP protocol, for instance, a standard for exchanging email, could be read and even hand-built by humans (as I remember doing in 1985, to send email outside the company network I was on.) The world wide web, conceived in the early 90s and live to a wider audience in 1994, had at its core an addressing system – the URL – which could be used as a general way of conversing between computers, no matter what their operating system or languages. (To the technology purists out there – yes, WWW relies on a whole slew of other standards as well, but I am trying to make a point here) It was rather inefficient from a machine communication perspective, but very flexible and easy to understand for developers and users alike. Over time, it has been refined from pure exchange of information to the sophisticated exchanges needed to make sure it really is you when you log into your online bank – essentially by increasing the sophistication of the HTML markup language towards standards such as XML, where you can send over not just instructions and data but also definitions and metadata.

The much-discussed semantic web is the natural continuation of this evolution – programming further and further away from the metal, if you will. Human requests for information from each other are imprecise but rely on shared understanding of what is going on, ability to interpret results in context, and a willingness to use many clues and requests for clarification to arrive at a desired result. Observe two humans interacting over the telephone – they can have deep and rich discussions, but as soon as the conversation involves computers, they default to slow and simple communication protocols: Spelling words out (sometimes using the international phonetic alphabet), going back and forth about where to apply mouse clicks and keystrokes, double-checking to avoid mistakes. We just aren’t that good at communicating as computers – but can the computers eventually get good enough to communicate with us?

I think the solution lies in mutual adaptation, and the exchange of references to data and information in other terms than direct document addresses may just be the key to achieving that. Increases in performance and functionality of computers have always progressed in a punctuated equilibrium fashion, alternating between integrated and modular architectures. The first mainframes were integrated with simple terminal interfaces, which gave way to client-server architectures (exchanging SQL requests), which gave way to highly modular TCP/IP-based architectures (exchanging URLs), which may give way to mainframe-like semi-integrated data centers. I think those data centers will exchange information at a higher semantic level than any of the others – and Wolfram Alpha, with its terse but precise query structure may just be the way to get there.

Brilliant image from Google today

image Google change their main logo according to whim and season, a practice that I like. The logo I captured here is a reference to the lemur-like fossil recently found in Germany that just may be the missing link in the evolution from ape to man.

Of course, the missing link has been claimed before – the Piltdown man in particular. History will be the judge, but kudos to Google for quick thinking and a really cool illustration. Unapologetic science-geekiness rules!

Abercrombie & Fitch & truly moronic store policies

image While I am in the States, my family sends me orders for various items they would like me to bring back. Since I have three daughters and a rather dishy wife, that means shopping in places such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which are mall rat havens with pounding music, posters of meticulously depilated underage models artfully grabbing their crotches, and clusters of of sweet young things standing around staring into space, occasionally shouting “What?”. My standard approach is to bring a netbook or some printouts and convince one of these creatures to go get the stuff for me.

Usually this works out to everyone’s satisfaction, but not today. I found myself in the Abercrombie & Fitch store next to Faneuil Hall in Boston, looking for a specific top (pictured) in a specific size. The store had only one left, which they refused to sell to me. When I asked why, the salesperson (and, eventually, the store manager) explained to me that it was the last one in the store and belonged to the “Visual Team”, apparently an organizational entity with immense powers. They did offer to check whether it would be available in another store. The idea that they sell me their piece and get a new one from another store apparently did not occur to them.

A few years ago this would have occasioned some rather sarcastic attempts by yours truly to explain the lack of basic business instinct in this policy, but with advancing years I have come to understand that discussing anything with “managers” (who manage without authority, an interesting concept) is like hunting dairy cows with a scoped rifle, to steal a phrase from P. J. O’Rourke. So I shook my head and left.

As for the store policy, I just can’t get it: There is a recession, and retail is suffering along with everyone else. Abercrombie’s revenues are stagnating and their stock is down there with the rest of the market. And here I am, a customer wanting to buy a product they have, and rather than sell it to me they instead saddle me down with their own bureaucracy.

Someone once said that in all companies, we start out working for the customer and end up working for the CFO. In Abercrombie they work for the Visual Team – it clearly is more important how the store looks than whether any sales take place there. I don’t get it. But then again, I am just a lowly business school professor who thought selling stuff was what stores did.

I must be getting old. And sadly lacking in the depilation department.

Manic depressiveness as illness and lifestyle

Youtube turns out, no particular surprise, to be a fount of interesting info- and entertainment. After watching Stephen Fry about Gutenberg’s press, I came across a documentary he had done for BBC on bipolar disorder, also called manic depression. I found it very interesting because it lays out a good description of the illness and the consequences it has for patients and their families, all in a quiet and informative way that never becomes sensationalistic or titillating. It does become personal, though: You can see on Stephen Fry’s face in episode two, when he is informed of the severity of his own condition, that this is a hard message to get.

Mental illnesses are gradually becoming less of a taboo in society, and more and more we understand the underlying causes, though treatments to a large extent are experimental, treating symptoms rather than causes. This documentary, in an excellent fashion, shows the link between personality and illness – a surprising number of people with bipolar disorder like the manic phases, when creativity is flowing and inhibitions are lower. The illness is part of their personality as well, and potentially losing that is difficult choice to make.

Highly recommended. (The videos below may change, occasionally BBC kicks it off the ‘tube, then it appears again….)