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.