Archive for January, 2008

Humanity’s Most Complex Creation

January 31, 2008

Take a look around your house. Take a look at what you are wearing. Take a look out your window.  No matter where you are, from the biggest industrialized city to the smallest rural village, you are surrounded by economic activity and its results.  Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the planet is abuzz with humans designing, organizing, manufacturing, servicing, transporting, communicating, buying, and selling.

The complexity of all this activity is mind-boggling.  Imagine a small rural town, the kind of quiet, simple place you might go to escape the hurly-burly of modern life.  Now imagine that the townspeople have made you their benevolent dictator, but in exchange for your awesome powers, you are responsible for making sure the town is fed, clothed, and sheltered each day.  No one will do anything without your say-so, and therefore each morning you have to create a to-do list for organizing all the town’s economic activities.  You have to write down all the jobs that must get done, all the things that need to get coordinated, and the timing and sequence of everything.  No detail is too small, whether it is making sure that Mrs. Wetherspoon’s flower shop gets her delivery of roses or that Mr. Nultey’s insurance claim for his lumbago is processed.  Even for a small town, it would be an impossibly long  and complex list.

Now think of what a similar to-do list might look like for managing the global economy as a whole.  Think of the trillions of intricately coordinated decisions that must be made every minute of every day around the world to keep the global economy humming.  Yet, there is no one in charge of this to-do list.  There is no benevolent dictator making sure that fish gets from a fisherman in Mozambique to a restaurant in Korea to provide the lunch for a computer worker who makes parts for a PC that a fashion designer in Milan uses to design a suit for an interest-rate futures trader in Chicago.  Yet, extraordinarily, these sorts of things happen every day in a bottom-up, self-organized way.

It is clear that the global economy is orders of magnitude more complex than any other physical or social structure ever built by humankind.

The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker

Humanity’s basic economic needs

January 30, 2008

Humanity’s basic economic needs:

  • carbohydrate
  • protein
  • fat
  • clothing
  • shelter
  • transport

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Why grizzlies, hippos and zebras were never domesticated

January 29, 2008

I am reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. At this point in the book he is explaining why certain animals were never domesticated:

Bear meat is an expensive delicacy, grizzlies weigh up to 1,700 pounds, they are mainly vegetarians, their vegetable diet is very broad, they thrive on human garbage, and they grow relatively fast. If they would behave themselves in captivity, grizzlies would be a fabulous meat production animal. I am not aware of any adult that has been tamed.

Hippos, as four-ton vegetarians, would be great barnyard animals if they weren’t so dangerous. They kill more people each year than do any other African mammals, including lions.

Zebras have the unpleasant habit of biting a person and not letting go. They thereby injure more American zookeepers each year than do tigers! Zebras are also virtually impossible to lasso with a rope — even for cowboys who win rodeo championships by lassoing horses — because of their unfailing ability to watch the rope noose fly toward them and then to duck out of the way.

Be careful of reports showing the “average”

January 28, 2008

The mean, also referred to by statisticians as the average, is the most common statistic used to measure the center, or middle, of a numerical data set. The mean is the sum of all the numbers divided by the total number of numbers. The mean may not be a fair representation of the data, because the average is easily influenced by outliers (very large or very small values in the data set that are not typical).

Example: suppose there is a group of people and we want to calculate the average salary. One person in the group is a billionaire and has a huge salary. Here’s the average:

average = $50K + $45K + $54K + $61K + $10,000K = ($10,210K)/5 = $2,042K

The average salary in the group is $2,042,000! Hardly accurate! The billionaire has distorted the average. For the majority of the group, the average salary is around $50,000.

The median is another way to measure the center of a numerical data set. A statistical median is much like the median of an interstate highway. On a highway, the median is the middle road, and an equal number of lanes lay on either side of the median. In a numerical data set, the median is the point at which there are an equal number of data points whose values lie above and below the median value. Thus, the median is truly the middle of the data set.

Example: in the above example, the median salary is $54K because there are two values below it ($45K and $50K) and two values above it ($61K and $10,000K).

The next time you hear an average reported, look to see whether the median is also reported. The average and the median are two different representations of the middle of a data set and can often give two very different stories about the data.

Statistics for Dummies by Deborah Rumsey

Continually revisit the basics

January 27, 2008

Years ago when I was in college I was a chemistry major.  I did quite well in my studies.  Even in the advanced courses, I was always reviewing the material from the introductory courses.

Nowadays I am immersed in a technology called XML.  I have the good fortune to be able to teach XML courses.  I enjoy teaching the XML foundation’s course in particular as it enables me to review the basics.

Interestingly, each time I reviewed the introductory chemistry material, and each time I teach the XML foundation’s course, I always discovered something new.

A friend pointed out to me that athletes are always practicing the fundamentals, e.g. the basketball player continually practices throwing free-throws, the quarterback of a football team continually practices throwing the football.

No matter how advanced or how proficient you are in your field, it is important to continually revisit the basics.

Words of the Day: tautology and contradiction

January 26, 2008

Tautology: a tautology is a statement that is always true.

Example: It will either snow or not snow today.

A or not A is always true.

Contradiction: a contradiction is a statement that is always false.

Example: The light is on and off.

A and not A is always false.

Graceful Degradation is Important

January 25, 2008

Graceful degradation is the ability to continue working, albeit with reduced functionality, when some expected capability is absent.

Example: Suppose you use JavaScript in your web page to enhance its interactivity. Your web page degrades gracefully if it continues to function even in a browser that has JavaScript turned off.

This is an example of an HTML link that degrades gracefully:

<a href=”http://solarsystem.jpl.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Mercury” onclick=”…”>Mercury</a>

If JavaScript is turned on in a user’s browser then the onclick=”…” will be executed. If JavaScript is turned off then the browser’s default behavior ensues: the browser fetches the web page identified by the href value, and replaces the current page with it.

Design your web pages, your software, your machines, your whatever to degrade gracefully. Anticipate things that might be absent or turned off and make your system able to still function.

An easy-to-use technology is a double-edged sword

January 24, 2008

A technology with low barrier to entry can be a double-edged sword.

A technology that people can speedily and easily use will probably be adopted very quickly.  However, there is likely to be a correspondingly low level of quality control.

HTML’s Explosive Growth

HTML’s ease of use is one of the reasons behind the explosive growth of the Web.

Anyone can learn the basics of HTML in a short space of time and create a web page very quickly.

It’s even possible to use WYSIWYG editors to make web pages without ever seeing a line of markup.

The downside to this is that most pages on the Web are badly formed and don’t validate.

Browser vendors have to accept this state of affairs by making their software very forgiving and unfussy.

Much of the code in browser software is dedicated to handling ambiguous use of HTML and trying to second-guess how authors want their web pages to be rendered.

HTML’s low barrier to entry has been a mixed blessing for the Web.

DOM Scripting by Jeremy Keith

An explanation for why working group sizes of 6 to 9 people are most effective

January 23, 2008

Some anthropologists have speculated that groups of 6 to 9 people come from our long evolutionary heritage as hunter-gatherers, and that such group sizes made for effective hunting bands.

Evolution tends to be quite efficient over time at finding balances between trade-offs.

So it is likely that working group sizes of 6 to 9 people evolved because they represent a balance between the benefits of scale (a hunting band can get more food per calories expended than a lone individual can), and the diseconomies of complexity. Our ancestors would not have survived for long if hunting groups of thirty people spent hours debating whether they should hunt bison or antelope that day.

The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker

My recommendation of a toothpaste and mouthwash

January 22, 2008

For the last several years I have had a problem with lots of staining on my teeth. I tried numerous different toothpastes and different whitening mouthwashes, and nothing worked.

Further, I have always been uncomfortable with all the chemicals that are in those toothpastes and mouthwashes.

After my last dentist visit I decided to go back to basics: I would brush my teeth with baking soda (baking soda, not baking soda toothpaste), and I would rinse with Vodka.

I am coming up on my next dentist appointment, and although I have some stain, it is much less than before.

I see three big advantages to using baking soda as the toothpaste and Vodka as the mouthwash:

  • Cost: baking soda costs about 75 cents for a box that lasts 6 months. A cheap bottle of Vodka costs about $8 and lasts about 3 months. This is a lot cheaper than the commercial toothpastes and mouthwashes.  Over the course of a year I will save a considerable amount of money.
  • Less chemicals: baking soda is just sodium hydroxide, and Vodka and just alcohol and water.
  • Effectiveness: I get much less staining with baking soda and Vodka.