Archive for August, 2007

The number of economic choices the average New Yorker has is staggering

August 31, 2007

“The number of economic choices the average New Yorker has is staggering. The Wal-Mart near JFK Airport has over 100,000 different items in stock, there are over 200 television channels offered on cable TV, Barnes & Noble lists over 8 million titles, the local supermarket has 275 varieties of breakfast cereal, the typical department store offers 150 types of lipstick, and there are over 50,000 restaurants in New York City alone.”

“Retailers have a measure, known as stock keeping units, or SKUs, that is used to count the number of types of products sold by their stores. For example, five types of blue jeans would be five SKUs.”

“The number of SKUs in the New Yorker’s economy is not precisely known, but using a variety of data sources, I very roughly estimate that it is on the order of tens of billions. To put this enormous number in perspective, estimates of the total number of species on earth range from several million to several hundred million.”

The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker

Experiment-driven, data-driven approach to web design

August 30, 2007

The book Hard Facts talks about the importance of making decisions based on evidence and data (“experiment-driven, data-driven mind-set”).  At this point in the book the authors are talking about how fully Yahoo! embraces this approach:

“Yahoo! Inc is skilled at running experiments and learning from them, as well as building a culture that emphasizes evidence-based management. Usama Fayyad, chief data officer at Yahoo!, points out that because its home page gets literally millions of hits an hour, the company can design rigorous experiments that yield results in an hour or less — randomly assigning, say, one or two hundred thousand visitors to the experimental group and several million to the control group … Yahoo! conducts experiments and uses the results to enhance company revenues and profits.  Much of this can be done very quickly; sometimes, results can be seen within minutes of tweaking something on the homepage or in Yahoo! Mail. This means there is no reason to spend time discussing which variation to explore or what design opportunities to pursue — it is often cheaper, easier, and faster to simply try all of them and learn what actually works. Yahoo! typically runs 20 or so experiments at any time, manipulating things like color, placement of advertisements, and location of text and buttons. These little experiments can have big effects, like the one run by Nitin Sharma, which showed that simply moving the search box from the side to the center of the home page would produce enough additional ‘click-throughs’ to bring in about $20 million more in advertising revenue a year … Yahoo! has the mind-set that says, Instead of debating which screen design looks best, or which placement of content and which choice of specific content works best, we’re going to try it all and see what works.”

Hard Facts by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Characterizing (U.S.) Democrats and Republicans

August 29, 2007

“Democrats promise social programs without mentioning future costs to taxpayers, while Republicans promise reduced taxes but are vague about future deficits or program cuts.”

unSpun, finding facts in a world of disinformation by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Be wary of “dangling comparatives”

August 28, 2007

“Larger, Better, Faster, Better-Tasting.  Advertisers frequently employ such terms in an effort to make their product stand out from the crowd.  In a recent ad, makers of New Ban Intensely Fresh Formula deodorant claimed it ‘keeps you fresher longer.’   One might be forgiven for thinking they meant it keeps you fresher, longer than the competition.  But, as a competitor complained to the Better Business Bureau’s National Advertising Division, they meant fresher than Ban’s old formulation. ”

“A dangling comparative occurs when any term meant to compare two things — a word such as ‘higher,’ ‘better,’ faster,’ ‘more’ — is left dangling without stating what’s being compared.”

“When you hear a dangling comparative term such as ‘more’ or ‘higher,’ always ask, ‘Compared to what?’  The answer may surprise you — and keep you from being fooled.”

unSpun, finding facts in a world of disinformation by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man

August 27, 2007

“The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man … If you look closely enough at anything, you will see that there is nothing more exciting than the truth … No matter what you look at, if you look closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe.”

The Meaning Of It All by Richard Feynman

My recommendation of a translation of The Brothers Karamazov

August 26, 2007

My brother-in-law recommended that I read The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Off to the bookstore I went, bought a copy, and proceeded to read it. What I difficult chore it was to read! Every sentence required enormous concentration. But I thought: “This will be good for me. It will make me a better reader.” Besides, I had never read a translation before, so I thought this was the way it is.

A couple weeks later I was talking to a friend about the book and describing what a chore it was to read. She said, “I hope your brother-in-law recommended the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. It makes all the difference.” In fact, the translation that I had was not the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. So back to the bookstore I went and picked up the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. What a remarkable difference! It is so much easier to read and understand.

I learned two lessons from this experience:

  1. “Who” writes a book translation makes a big difference
  2. I recommend reading the version of The Brothers Karamazov that says this: Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Never-ending battle between order creation and order destruction

August 25, 2007

If I leave my home alone, untouched, it soon descends into disorder: dust collects, paint peals off, wood rots, and leaks form. To prevent this degradation I need to periodically dust, vacuum, paint, replace boards, and fix leaks.

Another way to phrase this is: I must put energy and materials into my home to create order.

Still another way of stating it is: when my home is a “closed system” disorder increases. By making my home an “open system” I can import energy and matter into it to add order.

These ideas of closed/open systems and order/disorder are very important.

Here’s an excellent description of these ideas from the book The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker:

The universe itself is a system, and within that largest of all systems, one can define any number of smaller systems. For example, our planet is a system, as is your body, your house, or a bathtub full of water. A closed system is a system having no information flowing into or out of it. The universe itself is a closed system.

Energy might be converted into matter, and vice versa, and energy might be converted into different forms within the system, but the total amount is constant. In addition, the total disorder (entropy) in a closed system is always increasing to its maximum level, as order decays into disorder and the system eventually comes to rest.

The second type of system is an open system, with energy and matter flowing into and out of it. Such a system can use the energy and matter flowing through it to temporarily fight entropy and create order, structure, and patterns. Our planet, for example, is an open system; it sits in the middle of a river of energy streaming out from the sun. This flow of energy enables the creation of large, complex molecules, which in turn have enabled life, thus creating a biosphere that is teaming with order and complexity. Entropy has not gone away; things on the earth do break down and decay and all organisms eventually die. But the energy from the sun is constantly powering the creation of new order. In open systems, there is a never-ending battle between energy-powered order creation and entropy-driven order destruction.

Nature’s accounting rules are very strict, and there is a price to be paid when order is created in an open system. For order to be created in one part of the universe, order must be destroyed somewhere else, because the net effect must always be increasing entropy (decreasing order). Thus, as the sun powers order creation on earth, all of that life and activity creates heat, which is radiated back into space. The heat has a randomizing effect wherever it ends up, thereby increasing entropy. The earth thus imports energy and exports entropy.

Closed systems always have a predictable end state. Although they might do unpredictable things along the way, they always, eventually, head toward maximum entropy equilibrium (at rest, unchanging). Open systems are much more complicated. Sometimes they can be in a stable, equilibrium-like state, or they can exhibit very complex and unpredictable behavior patterns that are far from equilibrium. [Example, sometimes my home is in a steady, unchanging condition. Sometimes I let it go and it becomes very messy. Sometimes I get motivated and get it in spotless shape.] In an open system there may be patterns such as exponential growth, radical collapse, or oscillations. As long as an open system has free energy, it may be impossible to predict its ultimate end state or whether it will ever reach an end state.

A multi-lane road is 10% less efficient than a single-lane road

August 24, 2007

In a multi-lane highway, when different lanes are moving at different speeds, drivers are more likely to change lanes.

Lane changing causes drivers to be more cautious.

Greater caution results in lengthening the distance between themselves and other cars.

This causes more lane changing (since there’s more space between cars)

Here is a picture that shows how one thing leads to the next. Note the positive feedback loop, which results in lots of lane changing and increasing distance between cars:

Positive feedback increased distance between cars

Each lane on the highway ends up carrying 10% fewer vehicles than if it were a single-lane road.

— Extracted from The Wisdom of Crowds by James Suroweicki

Why learning longhand writing is important

August 23, 2007

A while ago I was talking with a friend. She has two children. She was telling me that she didn’t want her kids to learn longhand writing. She felt that the time could be spent more profitably learning other things. After all, who writes in longhand anymore?

I got to thinking about this. Here’s what I think.

Want to increase your IQ? Then learn new ways to manipulate your hands.

It has been discovered that a significant chunk of your brain corresponds to manipulating your hand. Every time you learn a new hand movement, you create new neural connections in your brain. Thus, you become smarter!

So, I think that children should learn to write longhand because longhand requires learning many sophisticated hand manipulations. And as we’ve just seen, perfecting new hand manipulations will yield new neural connections in the brain.

In other words, developing the skill of longhand writing makes kids smarter.

Cars leaving the front of a traffic jam move more slowly than those entering the back of it

August 22, 2007

“Cars leaving the front of a traffic jam move more slowly than those entering the back of it.  That’s why as you watch a traffic jam on television, it moves backward up the highway.  And that’s why jams are not easily dispelled.”

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki