Saturday, December 21, 2013

Track my speech

You can take the Wisconsin boy out of Wisconsin but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the boy. This New York Times dialect quiz guesses which part of the country you’re from based on your preferences for certain words (e.g. “sneakers” vs. “tennis shoes” or “dinner” vs. “supper”).Untitled_Clipping_122113_090740_PM

It correctly shows I’m from the Midwest, but I think it gave too much credit to my answer on what you call the night before Halloween (I said “Devil’s Night”, which is only used in the Detroit area, and I know it only from watching the news. Other parts of the country have no word for that night).

Friday, December 20, 2013

I'm a Stimulator? or a Mover?

Top Brain, Bottom Brain by Kosslyn and Miller

I didn't like this book, but having taken the trouble to read it, I'll at least try to summarize what I learned. I put it on my pile due to the praise from my favorite thinker Steven Pinker, but it didn't live up to my unrealistic expectations. The basic idea, drawn from author Kosslyn's deep neurological expertise, is that human brains, complex as they are, can be usefully summarized as carrying two main functions: planning and perceiving. Obviously the functions are highly interactive, so resist the temptation to oversimplify, but neverthless, you can identify four "Cognitive Modes" based on which function is dominant (or not) in a particular situation.
Highly-utilized Top Minimally-utilized Top
Highly-utilized Bottom Mover Mode Perceiver Mode
Minimally-utilized Bottom Stimulator Mode Adaptor Mode
People who are prone to “Mover Mode” are good at planning and execution. Perceivers, on the other hand, don’t initiate complex plans but are good at putting perceptions into context to understand the implications.
Stimulators, while often creative and original, tend to shoot off in a direction without much forethought, sometimes at the expense of social harmony. Adaptors, by contrast, are easy-going and flexible, but can be frustratingly directionless.

The book goes into plenty of detail, much backed by neurology, and with multiple anecdotal examples of how this plays out in real life. Unfortunately, the examples seem contrived and un-researched (Sarah Palin is an example of a “Stimulator”, Michael Bloomberg is a “Mover”).

So which brain type am I? Well, there is a handy test in the book (and online here) but I had a hard time with many of the questions. Some just seemed irrelevant to me (e.g. "when you buy furniture.." or "clothes" -- something I rely on my wife for), but others, I just didn’t understand ("do you observe surfaces?” huh?).
Partly because the questions didn’t make sense, I took the test twice: the first time I scored “Stimulator”. But I tried again and this time I scored “Mover.”  So which am I really?  I guess I’ll need to use both top and bottom of my brain to figure that out.

If you’re really into neurology, you have to read anything by this author, but you’ll probably be as disappointed as I was. Shrug.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

[book] Manage Your Day-to-Day

This is a short, easy-to-read, summary of tips for how to be more productive and more creative. The bottom line: focus.

Here are some of the specific tips worth remembering:

  • Do your most creative work first thing in the day, before everything else.
  • “Feel the frequency”: set up a routine, doing the same things at the same time.
  • Defend your creative time against all interruptions: schedule it on the calendar and treat it seriously.
  • It’s harder to see day-to-day progress on long, big (and hence worthwhile) projects, so invent metrics to enable self-tracking.

Two specific ways to break mental blocks:

  • [Ray Bradbury]: make a list of random word pairs, then force yourself to piece together a story about them.
  • [Edward de Bono] Repetition is the enemy of insight. Take a starting point that has nothing to do with your project and work from there.

Most of these tips are found elsewhere, so I didn’t think this was a breakthrough book, but it’s a readable and inspiring.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

[book] How Asia Works by Joe Studwell

Long-time journalist Joe Studwell (The Economist, Far East Economic Review, etc.) and now "mid-career PhD at Cambridge University” (what I’d love to do!) has thought about Asia for decades and concluded that three “interventions” are behind the successful Asian economies:
  1. First, maximize output from agriculture
  2. Next, direct all investment and entrepreneurs toward manufacturing
  3. Meanwhile, tame the financial sector to focus capital on intensive small-scale agriculture and on manufacturing development

Using examples from Japan, Korea, Taiwan to prove his point, and counter-examples from Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia, he shows in detail how government policies built on land reform helped struggling poor countries develop economies built on full employment through agriculture and the “garden-level” productivity that comes when people do everything by hand, without machines.  Countries without land equality couldn’t breed the light manufacturing that comes from the demand created by farmland product surpluses.

With rising surpluses from agriculture, successful governments targeted industry, but with an important caveat: only if the products were competitive internationally. This way, even if your officials are corrupt (inevitable), their money has to come from success in other countries. Selling natural resources breeds corruption because the gains all go to whoever controls the resources; in export-based manufacturing, corruption is useless unless a developed economy buys your stuff.

All the while, successful economies tame the banks to ensure their interests are aligned with both agriculture and industry.

One interesting aside that got my attention is how little education matters:

  • 55% of Taiwanese were illiterate at the end of WW2 and 45% remained in 1960.
  • S Korea literacy in 1960 was lower than 2010 Ethiopia
  • Meanwhile, Philippines has the highest university-educated students in SE Asia and places like Cuba have some of the highest literacy and university engineering grads in the world.

So far so good, and I liked his overall analysis.

But generally I found him overusing the term “market failure” and underusing the equivalent danger “government failure” (aka public choice). Like the similar analysis I didn’t like from Martin Jacques, I have the following thoughts:

  • His argument would be more persuasive if he analyzed all countries that apply his formula. He touches on India, but what about Africa, southern and eastern Europe, South America, etc.? (Note that he deliberately excuses Singapore and Hong Kong from his analysis because they don’t fit his thesis).
  • Culture plays a role, perhaps the biggest role. Japanese or Koreans would have been successful under a lot of different development models. They are driven people, with a deep level of pragmatism that you can’t ignore. There is a contrast between these people and other cultures. There just is.
  • State-directed capitalism, of the form this author likes (i.e. “not driven by free market ideology”), may be good at helping your country win in a basic industry (steel or cars). You know the road map, you know how to measure success.
  • Japan, the example I know best, has plenty of successes that were not driven by the state. Honda and Sony are the classic brands that thrived in spite of government inattention.
  • Predictability and stability are good attributes for the state, and here again Korea and Japan and Taiwan have some advantages. Governments can change, but the overall sense of drive is hard to kick out (it’s that culture again)

I have much more to say about this (check out this review by John Williamson, the man who coined the term “Washington Consensus” that Studwell pans) but overall I thought the book was well-written but with much to dispute.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

[book] Last Days of the Inca

Having just attended the excellent Peru exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, I was inspired to finally read this highly-recommended book detailing the Spanish conquest. If you've read the opening chapter of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, you already know the story: How on earth did an invading army of only 168 Spaniards defeat an army of 80,000 warriors who were defending on their home turf an empire of ten million people? The invaders had no knowledge of local geography or food supplies and no backup force. How did they do it?

Francisco Pizarro was a poor, rural Spaniard who arrived in the New World only a few years after Columbus’ initial landing, but by 1513 was together with Balboa at the first European sighting of the Pacific Ocean. After hearing of Cortez’ conquest of Mexico in the 1520’s, Pizarro teamed up with Diego de Amalgro to form a company intent on finding another empire. After one failed trip south, they made a more successful visit to the village of Tumbez, where they found natives who seemed to have access to lots of gold and silver trinkets – an incentive for the Spaniards to keep trying. Pizarro traded with these natives for two young boys, who he sent to Spain to learn Spanish and become interpreters for his next voyage.

The big expedition happened in 1531, with168 Spanish recruits (most of whom had never been soldiers before), 100 horses, and an assembly of others including African slaves, "merchants" (?), and women servants. Almagro stayed behind to raise more money and troops while Pizarro took the force into the heart of the Inca empire.

To make a long story short, Pizarro and his men overcame the odds through repeated use of trickery (to kidnap and kill the reigning emperor), and careful “divide-and-conquer” techniques (appointing a puppet emperor). But the Spaniards got carried away, and soon the “puppet”, Manco Inca, led a full-scale backlash that almost restored the Inca empire.

But the Inca suffered from two fatal errors in their counter-attacks: the first was, in their illiteracy, to miscalculate the importance of writing, thinking that captured, valuable documents would “send a message” if handed over, covered in blood, to besieged Spaniards, when in fact they carried valuable intelligence that saved the day. The second mistake was their habit, in battles, of sending the most important, most seasoned general to lead the charge, thinking that would be a symbol of bravery to the hesitant troops following him when in fact it merely demonstrated his irreplaceability when he inevitably was killed.

Reading this with modern eyes, I can’t help think how awful were these European invaders, who committed so many atrocities, against the natives and against themselves. Ultimately nearly all the key Spanish leaders were killed in various civil wars amongst themselves; Francisco Pizarro himself was assassinated by disillusioned supporters of his former business partner.

Still, the defending Incas were no saints either, themselves guilty of unspeakable cruelties against those who resisted their own conquests, just ninety years before the Europeans arrived. Ultimately, history proceeds in many, sometimes ugly directions and it’s pointless to guess what might have happened. But maybe there is a lesson in here about the value of bravery, of hutzpah, in the face of seemingly ridiculous odds and how that can make all the difference between being a conqueror and the conquered.

Manco Inca? - Ollaytantambo

Monday, December 16, 2013

The real reason for the 40-hour work week

Why do Americans work Monday through Friday and take weekends off?

Labor unions say we should thank the rise of organized labor in the early 20th century, whose tireless efforts on behalf of workers forced selfish capitalists to give their employees a break.

Henry Ford, in an article published in World’s Work Magazine in 1926, says his company switched from 6-day/48 hours to the modern work week in order to give workers a break. Many people still quote Ford as the visionary who paid his workers extra so they could afford to buy his cars. [see this excellent account from Ooomf, reprinted at TNW]

But I have a much simpler explanation: Henry Ford paid his workers more, and gave them weekends off because he didn’t want them to work for his competitors.

Google gives its employees free food. Will future labor historians look back and thank the visionary Google management for putting people above profits? Or is it just a clever way to keep employees longer at the office? If you have free food at the office, why go on a networking lunch with somebody from outside?

Most employers really do care that their employees have relaxing leisure time, but even if they didn’t, a 40 hour work week is a good idea if for no other reason than to raise the stakes for your competitors.

Coal Miner, Detail

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Doug Lemov’s Tips for Teachers

A few notes from Econtalk’s interview with Doug Lemov, founder of Uncommon Schools, who gives several practical tips on how to be a better teacher.Since we all find ourselves “teaching” sometimes, I’d like to see these tips applied more to business presentations too:

  • "At bats": Like baseball batters, who practice over and over, make sure your audience applies your instructions over and over, not just until they get it correct once or twice.
    • How deeply you know something is more important for getting to the next level than whether you “know it” or not. You must review, practice until something becomes intuitive, not just till you pass a test
    • e.g. You learn vocabulary words by understanding the distinctions with synonyms, not just the meanings
  • "cold calling": the teacher tells everyone in the classroom to prepare the answer, then asks one student at random
    • students know they are on call the entire lecture, so they have to pay attention
    • If the person called says "I don't know", you follow up with more questions till they get it.
  • "Call and response": Turn your questions into a game a al Rock Paper Scissors. Everyone answers the question at once (e.g. by raising a number of fingers signifying their answer to a multiple choice question)
    • Now you know how many in your class really understood -- and you can adjust accordingly
    • Technology can help too if everyone answers a quiz on their smart phone.

These and dozens of other practical tips are available in Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. Definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

A few hardware links to get started

I've been playing with hardware now for a year or so and this may be a good time to summarize some of the interesting products I've found. I confess that most of the real product-making has been done by my colleagues in Beijing, but I try to stay on top of it by playing as much as I can, and here are some things I've learned.

First, for sources of good up-to-date information, it's hard to beat the hackthings blog. Most every day, they feature an interesting new product or idea, often with background of how it was (or will be) manufactured or sold. Whether you're a hobbyist or a potential startup, you'll also appreciate the lengthy list of hardware resources/tools on Steve Blank's entrepreneur site.

If you're going to teach yourself hardware, Arduino is a great place to start (as I did), but you can quickly burn through a lot of parts. Instead, use an Arduino software simulator like the one from  For a similar browser-based simulator for non-Arduino purposes, try

If you're building self-tracking body hardware, you might check out the $500 E-Health Sensor Shield Kit  for Arduino and Raspberry Pi. It comes with ten body sensors, including pulse/oxygen (SPO2), body temperature, glucometer, galvanic skin response, EMG, ECG and more. For instructions on how to just make it all from scratch, see this DIY EEG/EKG/EMG site.

Low-power devices connected to your smartphone will use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and people have suggested I check out the $35 BLE Mini from Redbear Labs, the $100 nRF8001 Development Kit  from Nordic Semiconductor, or the $30 LightBlue Cortado (shipping in mid-2014).

I have a ton more links in a private Evernote folder, as well as on my public Pinboard account. As always, ping me if you have other suggestions.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The FDA needs to be more Bayesian

John Wilbanks is one of my favorite open science geeks (I even met him once in person, when he did a presentation for Microsoft Research). In a blog post this week, he writes a well-reasoned explanation for why the “Evil FDA shuts down lone entrepreneur” narrative is wrong.

Tech companies like 23andme, he writes, think in a “Bayesian” way, where the safety or “truth” of a medical claim is a probabilistic concept that depends on the number of data points (i.e. users). This doesn’t sit well with the FDA, to whom Truth is a binary fact: something is either safe or unsafe, period:

That “traditional” submission to the FDA would be of a very specific kind of analysis based on randomized controlled trials. It is designed to keep bad things from happening to people, not to make sure good things happen to people.

He concludes, correctly, that this is a clash of cultures and that if 23andme wants to succeed (and he hopes they do), they need to accept reality. This is how the FDA works. They should have known that:

[U]ntil the FDA learns how to deal with Bayes’s rule and its discomforts - and until DTC companies figure out a business model that isn’t based on massive loss leadership - we’re going to keep coming back to this clash of culture and business models. Both sides need to make some changes if we’re going to avoid doing this over, and over, and over

But why must “both sides” make changes? I’m reminded of similar advice given to Chinese dissidents that they need to “work through the system”, rather than make public their often misleading and “socially irresponsible” opinions.

I am able to make up my own mind about 23andme’s “marketing” claims, and so can you. The FDA, regardless of how understandable their position, is wrong. Shouldn’t those of us who believe in open data just say so?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Is there such a thing as a "generic" apple?

When you eat any food, shouldn't you care more about the particular piece you are eating, rather than the generic values listed in an app or book about calorie counting or nutrition?  The nutritional value of something as plain as an apple will depend on:  its variety (Gala? Fuji? McIntosh?), size, harvest date, length and conditions of storage, which parts you eat (peel? seeds?), and even what other items you may eat along with it.

Ultimately, the real value is whatever nutrition your body absorbs from it after your internal microbes pick it apart, and once the rest of your meal and environment are taken into account. In fact, there is such a wide variation in nutritional value that [I bet] some of the apples you might eat are actually less nutritious than foods we normally think of as “bad”.

I have a deeper appreciation for these importance nutritional differences, and the subtleties missing from nutrition labels after reading a new book by Jo Robinson: Eating on the Wild Side- The Missing Link to Optimum Health. It’s chock full of practical advice like:

  • Slice/chop/press garlic, then let it rest for ten minutes before cooking to boost its nutrition.
  • Cooked carrots have 2x the beta carotene of raw carrots.  Cut your own sticks for carrots; the baby kind are much less nutritious.  Then eat them mixed with fat (e.g. butter) to amplify the nutrition.
  • Red cherry tomatoes have 12x more lycopene than red beefsteak tomatoes
  • Canned artichoke hearts are among the most nutritious vegetables in the supermarket.
  • Same with canned beans: which are healthier than fresh, and have more oxygen radical absorption than red wine or blackberries.
  • Broccoli loses half its nutrition when you nuke it. Much better to steam for 4 minutes, or sauté in olive oil and garlic.

There are many, many more tips like this, backed by with tons of references from years of reading medical and nutrition journals. It’s changed the way I think about food, and made me look at apples much less generically.


Monday, December 02, 2013

More rational optimism

I can’t help being an optimist about technology and the future. Some of my  favorite books are : The Rational Optimist- How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.). Or Ramez Naam’s The Infinite Resource- The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. So this summary from The Motley Fool is right up my alley. One excerpt:

In two generations, the average American gained a decade of life expectancy.

Do you know what can happen in a decade? A little more than 10 years ago, AOL dominated the Internet, oil cost $13 a barrel, Fortune magazine named Enron one of America's "most admired corporations," and Apple was a joke. Everything can change, in other words. You get an extra one of those now.

I remember what life was like a decade ago, and I wouldn’t go back. I can’t wait for the next one.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Post-Pasteurian world

As a long-time fan of food writer Michael Pollan (read more here and here), it was inevitable that I’d read his latest, Cooked- A Natural History of Transformation (short summary: it’s great) and while there I stumbled upon an excellent paper in Cultural Anthropology by MIT scientist Heather Paxon that describes a viewpoint that is becoming more persuasive the more I understand it: the bacteria and microbes that surround us are nearly all friendly.

A tiny, tiny number of microbes are unfriendly (and make no mistake, a bacterium like Listeria monocytogenes, is extremely unfriendly), but the entire national regulatory system tries to kill these small bugs, at the expense of the vast majority of microbes that are friendly – and necessary.

Whereas Pasteurianism creates in citizens expectations that the state will ensure a safe food supply, such that “food panics” throw into doubt “the state’s ability to regulate business and bodies” (Dunn 2007:36), post-Pasteurianism questions whether state regulators have only the interests of citizen-consumers at heart.

Your body was designed to live among many different microbes. The friendly ones, in fact, are partly responsible for protecting us against the unfriendly ones. When you kill every microbe, with scorched-earth tactics like broad spectrum antibiotics or even with pasteurization, something else is lost too, and it’s important not to forget that.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

[book] The Goal

This book came recommended by none other than Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and he’s right: it’s one of the better business books I’ve ever read. Written in a breezy, dialog style, it reads as much like a novel as a how-to book.

The “goal” in the title refers to the fundamental purpose of any business: Turn a net profit, with high ROI, while maintaining cash flow. How you do that: reduce operational expense and reduce inventory while simultaneously increasing throughput.

These principles are generalizable to any situation where you want to be more efficient, and the author suggests a “theory of constraints” based on a set of “five focusing steps” to help you do this:

  1. Identify the system’s constraints (aka bottlenecks) that prevent the organization from obtaining more of the goal in a unit of time.
  2. Decide how to exploit the constraints to get more out of them.
  3. Subordinate everything, realign the entire organization as necessary to support the decision above.
  4. Elevate the system constraints, making any other major decisions necessary to increase the capacity at the constraint (bottleneck)
  5. If in these steps, a constraint is broken, go back to step 1. Never allow a constraint to continue solely due to inertia.

Like most good theories, these ideas seem obvious – nearly trivial – when you finally notice them. I suspect the applications are more obvious in well-established systems than in situations where you’re building something new. But even then, it’s healthy advice to be aware of bottlenecks to manage your system as efficiently as possible

I can see how they apply to the field I know best (software development), and I’m surprised I haven’t run into this book before.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The argument for regulating information

When Nobel Peace prizewinner Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned by Chinese authorities, his captors were unafraid that he alone, a single individual without guns, an army, or even military training, threatens the Chinese government, which has plenty of those items to spare. And few in the government would argue that Liu himself, or his ideas, are themselves irresponsible. He’s a well-educated, perfectly sensible individual well within his rights to think the thoughts he was thinking. No harm if he had simply stopped there.

When you or I, dear reader — the educated elite users of a product like the genetic testing service from 23andme, when we use the information about our genes, few at the FDA will argue that there is a danger. After all, we’re the early adopters, the people smart enough to seek this information in the first place. The trouble is not you and me, it’s them, don’t you know, the unwashed masses out there who may become — how shall we say this delicately? — overexcited, causing themselves potentially tragic — and avoidable — harm.

History shows that the ideas Liu outlined in Charter 08, might actually help China. Reasonable people, those bearing the full responsibility for the stability and long-term future of the country, have no fear of the ideas themselves. Once the country has matured a bit more, once the people are ready for this information, then yes, it may become appropriate to discuss the issues publicly. But right now, here in the real world, where leaders with actual accountability for China’s long-term stability, know that to throw Liu’s ideas out there, wily-nilly, without the proper preparation…well, think of what could happen if those ideas landed in the hands of the irresponsible masses who might be tempted to take action without understanding, as we do, the full consequences.

You see, an expert, whether at the FDA or in the Chinese Communist Party, has been carefully vetted, with years and years of education that brings a better sensitivity to the long-term benefits, as well as the potential downsides, that come with access to powerful ideas.

The government has been very patient with Liu Xiaobo, offering years of warnings, giving him plenty of time to realize the potentially destabilizing consequences of his behavior. The FDA was similarly patient with 23andme, spelling out over dozens of meetings and countless emails, precisely what the experts fear — know — can happen when important information gets into the wrong hands.

Liu Xiaobo has no gun, but many of his potential readers do. 23andme doesn’t perform mastectomies or administer drugs, but many of their potential readers may not be so limited.

You and I may be able to handle a world without sensible regulation of ideas and information. But do you really think that others can?

23andMe packagingSpeaker Pelosi With a Portrait of Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sustainable online education

Anant Agarwal, the president of EdX, MIT and Harvard’s massive open online course (MOOC)provider thinks the future of education doesn’t need have to maximize revenue:
“It’s not at all clear to me that there’s a business here that will produce hundreds of millions of dollars ... but I can see enough -- as a MOOC provider -- for us that we can sustain ourselves,” Agarwal said. “Our ambitions are modest in terms of revenue, and that’s adequate.”
With something so basic, so closely resembling a public good, as education, it seems to me that there will be no shortage of philanthropists and others willing to subsidize schools of various kinds. We’re already seeing news outlets going this way (Pierre Omidyar, Jeff Bezos). The arts have long relied on patrons, benevolent backers who sponsor something out of passion rather than profit.  Seems to me that education could go the same way.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is the FDA the only source of experts?

An SFGate blog, supports the FDA’s decision to prevent informed consumers   from having our genes sequenced halt the marketing of 23andme:

Silicon Valley whines any time regulators bog down their ability to “move fast and break things.” But as a society, we’re far better off when a neutral party that isn’t in the business of selling a medical product takes steps to ensure it does more good than harm.

Nobody disagrees about the importance of neutral parties ensuring that products do more good than harm. But isn’t that precisely the purpose of SFGate, the rest of the media, and for that matter, the entire education system? We are surrounded by neutral parties giving their opinions about every product and service we buy. That’s one of the many great benefits of a free society.

The FDA, like any other group of experts, is often wrong.  What makes them so special that they, and only they, should be allowed to decide what kind of information an intelligent American is allowed to have? Can’t I make up my own mind?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sun exposure and health

People born in the Fall tend to live longer than those born in the Spring. That’s the statistically significant conclusion based on a dataset of over one million people, according to a 2001 paper by James Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Interestingly, the opposite is true for people born in the southern hemisphere


He thinks it may have something to do with the diet of the pregnant mothers, who perhaps eat better (more fresh fruits/vegetables?) in the Summer than in the Winter. But I have an easier explanation: it’s the amount of sunshine.

Sun affects Vitamin D levels, which are clearly linked to all kinds of health. And contrary to what you read, reasonable sun exposure is inversely linked to skin cancer. It’s also possible that sunshine affects the number and type of microbes around, with some “blooming” more in the summer than winter, and maybe that has an affect too.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Computers make humans better

The Wall Street Journal[sub] has an example from chess. In 1997, a computer (using what today we’d consider antiquated technology) defeated the world’s best chess player, forever dooming humans to second-class status, right?

But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas.

There are twice as many chess grandmasters now than in 1997, and more than 50 people who can play at or above the level of the 1970s champion Bobby Fischer. Why? Because, people are using computers to stretch their skills higher than before.

This same principle is being repeated in every domain. If it’s something people enjoy, computers are making us better, not irrelevant.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why they failed: Zeo, Green Goose, 100Plus

QS13 Here's what happened
Zeo was, for many of us, our favorite QS company: great, consumer-oriented low-cost hardware that measured something useful (sleep) to give insights we couldn't have had otherwise. After $20M+ in funding over the better part of a decade in existence, they went bankrupt, abruptly -- so quickly in fact that many customers couldn't even get their data off the machines.

In one of my favorite sessions at last week’s Quantified Self Conference in San Francisco, Zeo co-founder Ben Rubin joined a few other co-founders to discuss why their original dreams didn’t quite pan out.

Zeo’s biggest success factor, says Ben, was "persistence" -- to build a great product, get retail distribution in places like Best Buy, expand internationally to the UK, build a portable Bluetooth version -- but the same persistence was also the seeds of their undoing, when they continued to push sales- and marketing-wise even when it was clear that the mass market didn't want the headband they were selling. Sleep measurement alternatives popped up from the fitness band companies, and although they weren't nearly as precise, it became harder to explain the Zeo advantage. Zeo needed a similar passive solution (maybe something you attach to your bed, like Beddit), and they were working on it, but persistence takes a toll on founders -- one left in 2010, Ben left in 2011 -- and the professional management team that remained found themselves confronting the worst of all worlds: a market that said not "yes" or "no", but a dreadfully-ambiguous "maybe".

Ben’s advice to anybody thinking of a similar venture is to fit, somehow, into the lives that people live right now. You may be trying to change behavior (isn’t that the point of measuring it?) but the mass market wants a straight line from where they are right now. You can’t ask them to uproot existing habits to use your product.

So what happened to Zeo's assets?  Will the products ever be revived? Ben obviously has to be discreet when discussing confidential information, so all he would say is that it was an asset sale by “a medical company interested in sleep." So who knows.  He also, sadly, confirmed my worst fears, that he knows of no way  -- even through reverse-engineering -- to get your Zeo data. The company failed so quickly that the people in charge of maintaining the servers had no time to close things gracefully. It's gone.

Brian Krejcarek, founder of Green Goose, had another exciting product that failed: $4 attachable "stickers" with embeddable sensors you can place throughout your house -- on your toothbrush, your bike, your dog. It was a brilliant idea, and they quickly attracted $1.3M of funding. But the direct-to-consumer company is super-tough – how do you get the word out? how do you handle the logistics? Meanwhile, technology marches brutally forward, and the wireless base station that originally made the stuff work at great (but elegant) engineering cost, is now available on Bluetooth 4.0 and your iPhone for next to nothing.

Chris Hogg, co-founder of personalized health prediction startup 100Plus, had a comparatively happy ending: his company was sold, to Practice Fusion (a $70M Series D funded medical records company). But Chris left when that happened, because he was always more interested in the “personal” side of health, not Big Enterprises, which is where the company ended up making its first money. In fact, that was one of his pieces of advice: “be careful where you get that first dollar, because that’s all next your investors will want to talk about.”

That’s the tension in every new business: on the one hand, you want to be flexible and listen to your customers; but on the other hand, you want to be true to your original mission.  When you find that consumers don’t bite, either because the product’s wrong or the technology has moved on or that enterprises turn out to be more interested, you may find that your original dream no longer applies.
All three entrepreneurs knew their original ideas were worthwhile and we’ll get there someday. But sometimes the future happens later than we’d like.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Are public schools better than private?

The Atlantic has a short interview with University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign professors Sarah Theule Lubienski, and her husband Christopher A. Lubienski: “a new book argues that public schools are actually academically superior”.

I don’t have the book (The Public School Advantage- Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools to be published in November 2013), but the authors wrote a 2006 paper that seems to conclude the same thing. Essentially they use a large dataset to argue that, while private schools do outperform public schools overall, the advantage disappears when you account for demographics of the students.

This would indeed be interesting if it were true. But a quick look at the paper makes me wonder about some obvious mistakes in methodology behind the  headline-grabbing “conclusion”.

  • 150K public students (96%) vs. 6500 private students (4%)
  • 2K Catholic, 2K charter, 1K “Christian”
  • Of 6,000 schools overall, only 150 are “other private”.

Since almost all of their data from private schools is from religious schools (mostly Catholic), shouldn’t that be the headline? This is NOT comparing your local school with the $20K/year highly-selective boarding school that many people imagine when they think “private school”.  As the study itself points out, there are many reasons parents might shell out extra money to send their kids to a school, but religion is a big one that, if anything, would trump "academics” in a lot of cases.

As always, my conclusion is to wonder how useful it is to know in aggregate whether something as variable as education is better done one way or another. What matters is what’s good for your kid. Trying to make a generalization about education systems based on a database of thousands of schools is like trying to predict the value of your home by looking at trends in US real estate. Who cares?

Friday, October 18, 2013

[book] Wealth and Power

I read this because, with all the recommendations I'd received, well, I had to. When I first moved to China and was looking to start reading up about the place, I followed the advice of David Moser on an early Sinica Podcast to "read anything by Orville Schell". When none other than Sinica host Kaiser Kuo mentioned that Schell had a new book coming in June 2013, I immediately put it into my reading queue and this week I finished it.

A nice overview of key people in China's past two hundred years, the book has chapters with the usual suspects like Mao, Chiang Kai Shek, and the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi, but you really should read it for its descriptions of less well-known (to the West) people like Wei Yuan (the guy who during the Opium Wars first worried about China's "humiliation"), Liang Qichao (the scholar/journalist whose New Citizen journal influenced everyone remaking China in the early 20th Century), Chen Duxiu (energetic founder of the CCP, who introduced Mao to communism but was later ostracized) and dissidents like Liu Xiaobo (winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize).

After reading the devastating Jung/Halliday book Mao: The Unknown Story, I found Schell's relatively mainstream depiction of both Mao and Chiang Kai Shek to be bland. Unless you're not already familiar with Edgar Snow's cheerful picture of Mao as heroic fighter against Nationalist corruption, you can skip those chapters. I'm being dramatic, of course -- anyone whose byline is on the Tiananmen Papers is no lackey for the CCP -- but to a curious, outside observer like me, deep skepticism is justified about everything people assume is true about Mao, and this book largely repaints the standard picture in ways that ensure the authors won't have their China visas revoked.

The last chapters, with its late-breaking history of China between 1989 and Liu Xiaobo were the most interesting to me. China, having lately received the wealth and power it has been lacking for the past two hundred years, may have found in the CCP a powerful new form of adaptable government, one that is intensely pragmatic in ways that seamlessly replace the capriciousness of revolutionary Mao with the flexibility required to steer a huge country into modernity: "resilient authoritarianism", as Columbia professor Andrew Nathan calls it.

Another final anecdote I liked in the book quotes famous sinologist Douglas Fairbanks lecturing a student who wants to compare China too much to the West: "Mao didn't make the Chinese Communist revolution for you", he says. China is on its own timetable, and the interesting characters portrayed in Wealth and Power are reminders that you can't understand the future unless you understand what's happening in China.



Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Charts of RAW data

The Density Design Lab at Politecnico di Milano just released a cool new (free) web site, called RAW, for very simple data visualization. It’s roughly similar to products like Statwing, Tableau Public or DataHero, except this one gives you the entire d3.js source code on GitHub.

I made the following chart using some data downloaded from Charles Murray’s excellent book Coming Apart, that has income and college graduation information for every US zip code. I simply selected the spreadsheet data right in Excel, then copy/pasted it – as is – to the RAW web site. A few clicks later and I had this:


The rectangles are US cities with more than 15,000 families organized by state. The size of each rectangle correlates with the median family income, and the color represents the percentage of people with college degrees on a spectrum from blue (lower percentage) to red (higher percentage). That big brown square on the middle bottom is New York City, with a high median family income and a substantial percentage of college grads. The California cities on the far right are bluish-green because they have lower diploma percentages.

Pretty cool, huh? I have a long wishlist for additional features (additional chart types, labeling options, etc.) but you have to admit this is a pretty easy way to do impressive data visualization for free, with only a few mouse clicks.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Clover of Brewing Machines

Five years ago, the Clover Coffee Equipment company was hand-assembling high-tech, excellent automatic coffee-making machines for the super high-end market. At tens of thousands of dollars each, they were intended for sale to boutique coffee shops, like Trabant and others, who could sell wonderful, precision-made cups of coffee to people who can appreciate the quality interaction of specialty beans, brewing times and temperatures.

Clover’s “factory” was an ordinary-looking building in Seattle’s Fremont district (very close to today’s MakerHaus by the way) and the founders were people who had a passion for the intersection of (industrial) design and the precision coffee experience. Those of us who knew the company and its products thought it was a great idea, and eventually Starbucks agreed when it bought them out.

How would you build something like Clover today? Well, I just saw the perfect example on Kickstarter: the PycoBrew Zymatic beer brewing appliance. At a high level, the hardware reminds me of the Clover: pumps, temperature sensors, relays, heating. Otherwise, instead of coffee beans, it uses grain and malt.

But the really exciting difference is the fantastic new business model that’s been enabled by Kickstarter. Whereas Clover had to be financed through (some deep-pocketed) angels and other traditional investors, PycoBrew can get its startup capital through its first customers. Through a pledge of about $1,500, the people interested in the product can help the new company financially right now, when it has no revenues.

Like the Clover founders, the people of PycoBrew seem very serious: their web site documents their progress through multiple generations of functional prototypes. To manufacture something that complicated, and then ship and support it around the country is a very big deal – the kind of business that in the past would have required (tens of?) millions of dollars up-front.

Think of a bread machine, only instead of bread you get beer. The basic idea is straightforward, and I personally know dozens, maybe hundreds of engineers who are entirely capable of building such a thing – or zillions of other similarly-interesting or useful products. But a great idea is useless without a profitable business to carry it out. Kickstarter and the wonderful set of internet-enabled ideas that go behind it, is lowering the costs and upfront hassles of actually starting and running the business side of ideas.

I can’t wait to see what additional new products we’ll see thanks to the new, really cool business innovation behind this.

Friday, September 27, 2013

[book] Adam Grant’s Give and Take

Seth Roberts blogged that this book is “the best in psychology in many years” and I think I agree. It’s similar to books by Malcolm Gladwell or Daniel Pink, full of easy-to-relate-to anecdotes backed by serious academic research. The claim is that success-minded people are divided into three categories: givers, matchers, and takers. The book presents evidence for why givers are the most successful in the long run – overly represented at the top of most fields – and how to avoid the mistakes that see givers overly represented at the bottom too: as doormats and pushovers.

Besides Seth Roberts’ blog, there is an excellent New York Times Magazine summary of the ideas, so I won’t bother laying out more details, but there was one concept in particular that interested me: the work of Amanatullah and Morris on negotiations. The women they studied weren’t particularly aggressive when negotiating for themselves, but got results as good as their male counterparts when negotiating on behalf of another.

If you’re a natural giver – you see yourself as doing things generally out of generosity or good will toward others – then one way to avoid being used is to imagine you are negotiating for somebody else. When the women studied were asked to negotiate a salary for another person, they ended up with much better results than when they negotiated for themselves.

Besides the obvious implication that I really should have my wife do all the negotiating in my family (which I already know is true), the easy trick is to approach any negotiation with the perspective that you are actually fighting on behalf of all the people in your life. You want a better salary or a good deal on a car, not for your own selfish gain, but because you want something better for your family. This idea of “relational accounting” is the purest form of giving, because you think through all the consequences of your actions, rather than simply demuring to the wishes of your counter-party.

The book is full of similar observations that make it well worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Don’t brush after mealtimes

Advice from the WSJ health column:

"When you eat or drink something acidic, the pH in your mouth goes down and can take some time to go back to normal." The ideal pH of a mouth is about 7, while a soda—even a diet one—can be as low as 2.5 or "about the same as household vinegar," says Dr. Cole. Acid demineralizes and weakens the tooth surface, making it more prone to decay.

Instead of brushing (which, more than once or twice a day is hard on your teeth), they recommend rinsing your mouth with water to neutralize the pH back to levels that aren’t so helpful to cavity-causing bacteria.

Day 241/365: don't forget yer toothbrush

Sunday, September 08, 2013

BodyMedia and Me

My data for the past week, presented using Excel's graphing functions.


Can't believe, after all these years, there's no easy way for Excel to save this in resolution-independent graphics.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Krugman on Microsoft and Apple

Paul Krugman is mostly correct:

Back in the 80s, Microsoft and Apple both had operating systems to sell; Apple’s was clearly better. But Apple misunderstood the nature of the market

He argues that Microsoft "won" in the 90s thanks to network effects it exploited when Apple's superior product was not opened to more hardware vendors. Similarly, the iPhone had an early technical lead that is sustained through network effects due to its large base of developers. Steve Jobs' controlling nature resulted in products that do some things very well and reliably, but quickly become difficult or cumbersome when you stray from whatever he thought was good for you.

My take: Complexity breeds sluggishness when promoting anything new. Apple misses plenty of niche markets they might have colonized with a more flexible approach, but they maintain agility to add new things to the existing platform -- and see them adopted. Whether this is a sustaining advantage depends much on their ability to continue picking market winners. During the 90s they lost their sense of which products were worth pursuing, under-investing in things like Quicktake digital cameras, for example, while over investing on existing products like Mac hardware (Powerbook) or OS features (OpenDoc) that proved to be less important.

By the way, I disagree with Daring Fireball on one point: although technically the Mac did ultimately succeed, that was the halo effect of iPod, etc. If Apple had focused just on the Mac, it would have remained a tiny niche.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Homemade sauerkraut

As already noted, I’ve become interested in the role of microbes in our bodies, including the value of fermented foods.  First yogurt (which I still make regularly), then cheese. Now I’ve decided to try sauerkraut.

This was a bit more complicated and time-consuming, though still pretty easy. Like most processes, if you do it a few times it becomes second nature and takes under an hour, total, to prepare.  You can find recipes all over the internet, but I followed the directions from famous fermentation expert Sandor Katz, whose book Wild Fermentation I highly recommend.  The excellent web store Cultures for Health has great information too, including a series of free ebooks with hundreds of detailed pages about everything you need to know. Their Lacto-Fermentation ebook is particularly good for sauerkraut.

Basically, you just chop up some cabbage, add lots of salt, and place it tightly in a covered container for a few weeks.  I did it using an old, heavy ceramic pot we have around the house, but if you don’t mind spending $150, you’d probably do best by ordering a Harsch Gairtopf Fermenting Crock Pot, which is specially designed for this.

I left mine sit for about 4 weeks and here’s what it looks like.  Seems pretty good, huh?


Actually, that’s after I carefully scraped away a ton of mold that had accumulated on the top.  See that whitish-gray stuff below?   Supposedly it’s technically a layer of kahm yeast, which is different from mold and apparently harmless.


Peel it off and you get this:


To be honest, whether it’s harmful or not, the layer on top was gross enough that it has me wondering if it’s okay to eat. All the books and websites assure me that it’s okay as long as it smells and looks like sauerkraut, which it sort of does. It’s not super-tangy or especially sweet-smelling.  I try a spoonful and it tastes very salty.

My Lithuanian farmer grandmother used to make and serve sauerkraut all the time, so I assume I’m just following the family tradition.  Should I eat the rest?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sleep Times: BodyMedia vs. Zeo

Most of those wrist-style activity monitors try to tell you how well you slept, but I’ve found the technology isn’t particularly accurate. Lately I’ve been trying the BodyMedia FIT armband, which also claims to tell sleep times.  But how accurate is it?

Here are my numbers after a week of wearing both devices.


The bold lines are from BodyMedia and represent the time spent lying down (which should be pretty accurate) versus actually sleeping (which depends on BodyMedia’s algorithms for detecting when sleep starts, and may not be very accurate). The other, non-bold lines are from Zeo, the headband device from the (sadly) now-defunct Zeo Inc, which is clinically proven to be about 80% accurate.

The good news is that the two devices seem to roughly agree, at least on overall sleep times. For that, BodyMedia is pretty good.

BodyMedia also computes another measure they call sleep efficiency that is simply the ratio between the time it thinks you’re in sleep versus the total amount of time spent lying down. Unfortunately, I found no correlation between this and the more meaningful Zeo-calculated sleep phases: REM, deep, or light.

Our bodies are motionless during the REM sleep phase, as muscles are turned off, and we move again when the REM phase is finished. These regular movements throughout the night usually correspond with sleep transitions, which the armband accelerometer can in theory detect, but I couldn’t find that information in the BodyMedia. Other accelerometer-based devices use these movements to guess at when a REM phase began or ended, so conceivably BodyMedia could add that information in the future; or perhaps they’ve considered it but concluded it wasn’t accurate.

Bottom line: BodyMedia is okay as a measure of overall sleep times, but won’t tell you much more.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Why I’m skinny

I weigh about the same today as I did in college: 160 pounds. In my entire life I’ve never weighed more than 170. Maintaining my weight has been effortless: I eat pretty much whatever I like, whenever I want, and in whatever quantity suits me at the time.  I know, I know, this is not normal and I should be thankful.  The vast majority of people, especially past middle age, seem like they have to starve themselves to keep from piling on the pounds.

Why?  I’m not particularly athletic. Although I don’t think of myself as sedentary per se, I’m hardly the type who does regular biking or jogging.

It might be genetic, but it’s hard to say.  My 23andme results suggest, if anything, I have the opposite problem (72/100 vs 64/100 for people like me).  On the other hand, I have the GG marker for rs925946, which puts me at lower odds, but who knows.  Most of my relatives are on the thin side, but we have our share of porkers too. I doubt my DNA explains everything.

One of my favorite theories is that I’m host to a benevolent microbiome, a colony of bacteria in my digestive system that processes food as I eat it, to prevent me from becoming either too skinny or too fat. But I’ve been hospitalized with some powerful antibiotics that probably killed off whatever beneficial bacteria I have, so that’s not persuasive either.

That leaves the most obvious possibility – that I just don’t eat enough – but I’ve never proven that objectively. Until now.

For the past week I’ve been wearing the BodyMedia Fit, a $90 simple and non-obtrusive armband that’s so light it’s easy to forget I have it on. Using four hi-tech sensors, it calculates my metabolism with 92% accuracy compared to the Gold Standard lab equipment. To track my food intake, I use MyFitnessPal, a (free) iPhone app with a huge database of food types (and super-handy UPC code scanner) that makes it easy to enter what I ate each day.

Here are the results:


The bottom line is that I’m thin because I don’t overeat. Apparently my metabolism is set to burn off whatever comes in, which turns out to be well within the range of what it takes to stay thin.

I’m not a weight loss expert, and this is not a testimonial for how to lose weight. Everyone is different, and my results probably won’t help you. But if you want to understand what your body is doing – the first step toward making any changes – then I highly recommend getting a device like this one to understand your metabolism objectively.

Incidentally, a good follow-up question is why I don’t feel hungry. I don’t think weight issues can be solved with self-control: diets fail in the long run if they depend on willpower. Seth Roberts always has thoughts about this that intrigue me and I’ll spend more time thinking about that in the future.

[Placeholder: I’m writing up many more details, including the raw data, about my week with BodyMedia and I’ll post a link here when I’m finished]

Monday, June 10, 2013

Thoughts about WWDC 2013

My takeaways from today's WWDC announcements (in no particular order):

The UI changes for iOS7 are gorgeous, of course, and I can't wait to make the switch.  I wonder how long it'll take for developers to make the switch too. Many (most?) apps will look ancient until they upgrade to the new, flatter, look; even if the OS does most of the work for free, you can't change this much UI without making older apps look, well, old.

I see Apple finally deprecates the 3GS, but is hanging on to the iPad2. No hints, none whatsoever, about future hardware.

That first (and only) third party demo, of Anki Drive, had the potential to be very cool (hardware! and iOS! from robotics experts! ) but it disappointed, and not just because of the long delay as the company CEO tried to get it to work. Now that hardware is the new software, I'm expecting (and seeing!) some products we could only dream about in the past, so I was expecting a lot more than just another real-life game, however cool that might be. 

It's nice to see more Chinese-specific features, like the overdue Tencent Weibo integration. Looks like there will be a built-in Chinese bilingual dictionary, which is handy but a little odd to compete so directly with excellent third parties. I wonder if there'll be other dictionaries too.

I saw a new Scan API, which I hope means OS-level support for reading QR and maybe UPC codes.

Tags in OSX are a great new feature I'll use a lot, though I hope the file system embeds the tag in the document itself, so it'll work cross-platform.

There's a new "location beacon" feature in iOS7 that looks like a low-power way to let devices tell the phone that they're nearby.  I see it's supported by a new "Core Bluetooth" framework that should make it much easier to build apps to talk to all those new hardware devices that are coming.

Other features, like iCloud keychain or the new Safari features mostly just replicate functionality we've long had from third parties. I didn't see much to tempt me to switch, especially since third parties (like 1Password) are likely to quickly rev themselves to run on top of whatever new functionality Apple adds.

The iWork in the cloud, plus the promised rev of these apps later this year, is big news for Microsoft Office. As always, compatibility -- with Office and with Windows -- is a big issue, so running in the browser is the a great way to solve that.

My overall impression is that Apple continues to plod away with reasonable, incremental improvements to their platforms. Not much here is as revolutionary as some of the really big announcements we saw at recent WWDCs (iPhone 4, iCloud, Retina, etc.) but that's okay by me: I'll be upgrading as soon as I can.

Apple Developer


Sunday, June 02, 2013

The future of college

College is such a critical part of modern life that sometimes we forget the difference between “college” and “education”.  Now that my children are closing in on that age, I’ve been thinking about it more.  How is college changing? How can I ensure my kids get the right education?

There are plenty of books (and seminars and consultants) that explain how to get into top colleges, but I don’t really want a how-to manual (maybe it’s my liberal arts education :-). This book, a well-written summary of the bigger and more important trends, was exactly what I needed. The author, Jeffrey Selingo, is a long-time editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, so his natural audience is people in the academic community, but I found it to be a good overview for interested parents too.

Higher education is in the midst of one of its biggest transformations ever.  Maybe you don’t need to worry just yet If you’re a tenured professor at a reasonably good school, but frankly if you’re just starting to consider a career in academia, you better think carefully because the reset that universities are undergoing will almost certainly make jobs in the Ivory Tower very different just a few years from now. Clay Christenson (The Innovator’s Dilemma) says the disruption is so big that in fifteen years half of universities will be bankrupt.

Technology is the immediate driver of urgency, but as Selingo notes, the problems in higher education are deeper and result from decades of societal attitudes and government policies that focus on the degree itself, as though no dollar amount is too much to justify additional spending on college.

It’s a vicious cycle.  See Bennett’s hypothesis:  “increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase”.  Academics will tell you the evidence for this is controversial, but to me it seems self-evident when you look at the rise of “resort colleges” with their expensive – but to immature 18-year-olds, appealing – amenities. When it can easily cost $200K to send a kid to a four-year college, there had better be a lot more value than free ice cream trucks (true story: Hill Point University in North Carolina uses that as one of its many gimmicks incentives  to persuade trick high school seniors into getting their parents to pay the outrageous tuition).

It’s not just tuition prices that are going up, even beyond whatever Baumol’s cost disease predicts. There’s grade inflation of course (did you know that 91% of Harvard students graduate with honors?)  but also an inflation in degrees themselves: with so many low-quality college degrees, it’s getting to the point where you need a master’s degree to stand out, with almost 700K awarded in 2009.  As Selingo writes (p10), "The number of people with a master's degree is now about equal to those with at least a bachelor's degree in's probably only a matter of time before the doctorate is the new master's degree".

But the same forces that disrupted the music industry, then journalism, are now coming to universities, and for a similar reason: much easier distribution of information. Some of that, obviously, is the rise of online learning (the book goes into details everything from Khan Academy to Coursera), but better information affects more than just the learning itself. 

For example, it’s much easier to find a good college using several amazing new online resources: Naviance, the excellent detailed database of colleges which most good high schools already subscribe to, and ConnectEDU, which uses a student’s academic record to predict the best fits for colleges and majors. I think resources like this are much more valuable than the newly-fashionable parent-child college tours, which are really more of a family bonding experience than an objective way to learn about colleges.  Who on earth would make a decision based on the impressions of a quick visit – many of which, Selingo notes, are now guided tours put together by the same people who plan experiences at Disneyland.

Information is causing another disruption, thanks to new transparency about the the true ROI for individual colleges and majors. Virginia law requires its colleges to to publish data about the salary earnings of their graduates. In other states, even when colleges don’t want that information published, the company Payscale ranks schools using their extensive data about starting as well as mid-career salaries of their alums. The results are not good news for many schools, and you can see why a shakeout is long overdue.

If you or your kid are one of the few (one out of five, according to psychologist William Damon) who knows what they want to do in life, the coming changes to higher education will seem natural and overdue. For other kids, though (and their parents), the information in this book is indispensible: see his suggestions about overseas study, time off before/during college, preparing better in high school.

My college education, as wonderful as it was for me, will seem quaint and largely irrelevant much faster than we think. This book is a great introduction to how it will change.