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.