23 December 2013

"David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell presents a wonderful collection of stories that focus on how the underprivileged Davids of the world are not so bad off as we usually think in their fight against the Goliaths. Instead, whatever their disadvantages are, those very disadvantages often provide the perfect circumstances to beat excel. From physiological issues like dyslexia to life events like losing a parent and even the way in which authority is presented to us. Each of these would seem to seem to reduce one's chances of success but those who suffer them and persevere are stronger than those who never face such challenges.

Interesting tidbit: The biblical Goliath was likely nearly blind.

17 December 2013

Sheena Iyengar: How to make choosing easier

How to avoid decision paralysis:
  1. Cut back. The more options, the lower the participation.
  2. Concretize. Show the concreteness of the choice.
  3. Categorize. Fewer items in more categories (that are meaningful to the chooser not necessarily the categorizer) feels like more choice and receives more participation.
  4. Condition for complexity. Present information from least complex to most complex.
Sheena Iyengar: How to make choosing easier (TED)

03 December 2013

Hans Rosling: Religions and babies

Apparently, childbearing is not so much tied to income (as I have been taught), however the population will continue to bloom as as birthing rating continue to drop.

Hans Rosling: Religions and babies

26 November 2013

"What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell presents a vast collection of meticulously researched and well planned. While each chapter is self contained, the chapters cover a broad rand of topics from the Dog Whisper (the book's namesake) to the fight against cancer.

Interesting tidbit: New York City's crime rates rank among those of retirement communities.

19 November 2013

14 November 2013

Damon Horowitz calls for a "moral operating system"

Life is full of moral questions and technology is only exacerbating the issue. Horowitz discusses how we should be better in touch with our human selves in order to develop our own personal moral framework.

Damon Horowitz calls for a "moral operating system"

22 October 2013

Bruce Schneier: The security mirage

Evidently, we respond to the feeling of security but not the reality of security. This is usually good but sometimes we feel secure but really are not. This is bad.

Bruce Schneier: The security mirage

17 October 2013

Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability

Worthiness is the difference between those who have a strong sense of love and belonging and those who do not. Ways we cope with vulnerability: 
  • Numb emotions
  • Medicate to compensate for numbed emotions
  • Eliminate uncertainty (e.g. religion is not longer discussed but is fought over 'matter of factly')
  • Blame (i.e. the discharge of pain and discomfort)
  • Pretend our choices do not impact others
Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability

08 October 2013

Ben Goldacre: Battling Bad Science

Goldacre presents some quick ways to identify when information is being with held, especially in medical studies.

Ben Goldacre: Battling Bad Science

04 October 2013

How you tie your shoes; and why it matters

How do you ties your shoes? More importantly, how many different ways can you tie your shoes? (No, double knotting does not count as a different way of tying your shoes.) I have asked this question of many people and have found a common trend: most people only know one way and no one I have asked knows more than two ways.

Who cares? Well, you should. Most people who only know one way of tying their shoes have not learned additional ways because: either they assume that they were taught the most efficient method as a youth or they spend so much time focusing on other areas of their life that they have not taken time to refine one of the most basic components of their life.

To be honest, it was quite shocking to me the first time I learned another way to tie my shoes. It was shocking because I had never before supposed that there could be a different way to tie shoes. Shoe laces are such a basic component, and tying them such a basic routine, of daily life that it seemed trivial to address the methods again, later in life.

This being written, however, I wish to point out the number of times that untied shoes how hampered an activity. Consider the poor sportsman who has to stop mid-game to tie his shoes or the hiker who has to either stop the hiking part or run to catch up after retying her laces. In either case, a few minutes spent learning a more efficient and secure way of tying laces could have prevented the momentary loss of enjoyment.

Why am I writing about this? Because single knot tying knowledge often means that the individual has stopped learning new ways of living life in general. In other words, most adults have a singular method for each routine life activity and rarely try new and different ways of doing the same old things. It makes sense though. Why learn something new when the old way seems perfectly fine.

The answer, for me at least, is simple. We should be ever learning in case there is a better way to live. Though I would not advocate spending so much time learning that one wastes their life endlessly learning about the same thing (I do not have to eat every fish to know I do not like seafood) but one should at least try a variety and revisit the topic every often.

Learning new things can contribute to overall life satisfaction and even generate happiness by stimulating the mind and adding variety to life. And, who knows: maybe you will learn a better way to do things.

As a side note, I recognize that life should not be all about efficiency but investing energy in being efficient allows the background noise of daily maintenance to fall into the background, which in turn allows us to focus on the business of living.

So, get a little outside your comfort zone and learn a new way of doing something you have been doing for a while. You might learn a better way to tie your shoes or you might find a new reason to appreciate your current methods.

01 October 2013

Taking notes in a new era

Since notification of the demise of Catch (some of the most fantastic note taking software for Android, iOS and the web) I went hunting for a replacement. I tried the ever popular Evernote, but was somewhat underwhelmed.  What I loved most about Catch was the ease of creation, editing and syncing of notes. Evernote has to be paid to use some of its better features and the PC software looked too scary, so I continued my search. Then I found Microsoft's OneNote. OneNote is a brilliant, free note taking software that I wished I had had when I was still in school. And, it works in all the same places as Catch plus the OneNote application is included in most flavors of Microsoft Office. So for anyone looking for good note apps, try OneNote.

Why did I write this? Because, as I was writing an essay in OneNote, I realized that since I switched to OneNote, I have never looked back (something I did frequently with Evernote). So I figured I should share my computing discovery with the world.

The end.

26 September 2013

"Fooled by Randomness" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb takes us on a journey through life (with a money market focus) and points out a variety of situations and events that we attribute, incorrectly, to skill. Instead, much of what we chaulk to patterns is actually random noise with no real pattern.

12 September 2013

On Classics

There are three kinds of classic: Classic by Necessity, Classic by Nature and Classic by Force.

The first, Classic by Necessity, is only a classic because of circumstances. These are easy to spot in the clarity of retrospect but are often cleverly hidden or disguised by current circumstances. Such Classics are often passed down as a Classic by Nature sometimes because they are overlooked but sometimes out of shame for the poor circumstances that made it a "classic" to begin with.

There is story I am fond of that illustrates Classic by Necessity:
One day a new wife was preparing a roast. She chopped off the ends before putting in the pot to cook. Her husband asked why she chopped off the ends to which she responded, "that is how you cook a roast." The husband disagreed and pointed out that leaving the ends on adds meat the roast, locks in the juices and improves the flavor of the roast. The wife responded again, that a proper roast has the ends chopped off. The husband again disagreed to which the wife responded by inquiring of her mother. Over the phone her mom said, "No dear, you should leave the ends on."

"Why did you always chop off the ends then?"

"Dear, I chopped off the ends to make the roast fit in our pan. We were too poor to buy a bigger pan."

Again, many Classic by Necessity are passed down because no proper explanation was provided. It is hard to explain, "Honey, we are too poor to do this right so this half-baked version will do for now but someday, when you are rich, you should do better." Bland gravy over biscuits, flavorless dumplings in a flavorless broth, even the otherwise Classic black suit that was bought too large and baggy is only a classic because of necessity.

Classic by Nature, however, is a classic because by its very nature it is a classic. By "nature", I mean that they stimulate the individual's senses in a unique and distinguishable way that allow for a continued pleasurable experience with each exposure.

Often these forms of Classic are noted for their clean, simple and even basic appearances. In fact, it is usually because of the lack the exotic intricacies, the doodads, bells and whistles that one can enjoy the base experience without distraction that enables Classic by Nature to become and remain a true Classic.

For architecture it is clean, simple lines with a tasteful blend of materials. For dresses and suits, it is a simple, flat color (usually black) with trim lines that accent the wearer's body. For food, it is a collection of items that share a common, basic taste with carefully chosen compliments that allow the consumer to identify and appreciate the central theme. For art, it is simply shaped and colored piece that allows the viewer to appreciate the initial basic perspective of the piece while also allowing for deeper introspection and appreciation of technique. For music, is the repetition of a beautifully simple theme that wanders and eludes but always comes back like a true friend.

Timelessness is another component of a Classic by Nature. This Classic is hard or impossible to determine a place and time based solely on the work. Indeed, Classic by Nature was a classic since the moment it was conceived (and would have been sooner if it had been dreamt up sooner), continues to be a classic today and will always be a classic. This timelessness can be difficult to recognize and even harder to manufacture but can be clearly identified upon reflection. Even as fads and fashions change with time, a Classic by Nature can always be brought back to be enjoyed again.

Beyond its enduring nature, Classic by Nature demonstrates a strong degree of class, or classiness, which is hard to argue against. This class encourages and begets more class. While wearing a classic black suit or dress, it is difficult to imagine eating anything but a classic meal of grilled chicken glazed in an apricot sauce with a fettuccine in a light Alfredo sauce and bread on the side. One would never consider eating such a meal while listening to some contemporary pop. Classic dinner in classic clothes requires classic music while drinking some classic beverage (maybe apricot nectar mixed with club soda), sitting at a table with classy people wearing classic clothes looking at classic art in a classic room in a classic building in a classic town under a classic sky. Too much classic? Maybe, but probably not. It is hard to have too much Classic by Nature.

A unique feature of Classic by Nature is that it has survived the stricture of peer review. That is, others have tried to tear down or find fault with the classic and, despite this criticism and whatever flaws were found, the stimulation provided by the classic is desirable enough to survive and still be sought after. These are the classics to be had.

On the opposite end is Classic by Force. These are things that are neither necessary, simple, basic or timeless. We may be told they are classic, but, by definition, if an individual needs to be told that something is a classic, it is not a classic. In these cases, instead of the thing being able to tantalize the senses it fails to do so and thus needs the contrivance that it is indeed a classic when it is not.

The feigned classics are frequently produced by the efforts of pop culture trying to leave a lasting impression on the world. Instead, they fail because while the Classic by Force lasts as long as the businessman is peddling, it is forgotten as so as he stops and it falls, like all garbage eventually does, to the side of the road.

Resisting the calls of the peddler can be difficult as they are specifically tuned to bypass the normal checks of the peer review process of class and skip the normal refinement of experience to become a raw expression played out upon the individual. Instead of allowing the individual to soak in and appreciate the experience, the peddler practically force-feeds the experience to the individual while simultaneously telling the individual what they are experiencing and how they should feel about it.

Classic by Force is a dangerous process because it is so strongly influenced, or even forced upon us, by peer pressure. One usually accepts these Classics, sometimes converting all of one's resources to this timely, complicated fad only to eventually realize how big of a mistake said investment was.

06 September 2013

"The Ultimate Mouthful: Lunge Feeding in Rorqual Whales" by Jeremy A. Goldbogen

We finally understand (mostly at least) how the biggest animals on the planet eat. This article describes the fascinating process that rorqual whales (e.g. blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales) go through to get a little food into their bellies.

It is especially interesting to me that we are barely (in the past decade) getting enough information to piece this process together.

http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/issue.aspx?id=8779&y=0&no=&content=true&page=2&css=print

27 August 2013

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

Most leaders market "what" they do and "how" they do it and maybe "why" they do it. Instead, Sinek suggests that the most successful leaders market "why" they do the "how" of their "what".

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action (TED)

22 August 2013

Rebecca MacKinnon: Let's take back the Internet!

The internet is not as free as we think it is. Instead, many companies have inserted themselves as self-appoint (and often government approved) censors of content. MacKinnon argues that such censorship hampers our ability to keep our government in check.

Rebecca MacKinnon: Let's take back the Internet!

13 August 2013

"Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert

Gilbert strings together a variety of studies to help explain one of the greatest mysteries of our time: how 'happiness' works. The book is chocked so full of useful information that it has become one of my best reads in a long time.

Interesting tidbit: humans are really bad predictors at what will make them happy.
Interesting tidbit 2: Most people would drive across town to save $100 on a $200 stereo but would not drive across town to save $100 on a $20,000 car. Even though they save the same amount of money.

08 August 2013

Dan Gilbert: Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?

Gilbert points out that while we can synthesis happiness (thanks to our prefrontal cortex) we continue to think that happiness is something to be found.

Dan Gilbert: Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy? (TED)

17 July 2013

"Decisive" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

The brothers Heath do a wonderful job of detailing how to improve our decision making process. From personal lives to corporate offices, they lay out a solid pattern to make the best decision possible.

Interesting tidbit: PayPal first started as an app for PalmPilot and had to be convinced to become an online payment service.

11 July 2013

John Corrigan - Are We Listening To Our Children?

Apparently, hearing is the first sense we develop and is the one that our brains are best designed to use. In order for children to learn how to effectively listen, they must be shown unconditional respect (which activates the "blue zone" or "adult brain") and be helped to learn how to empathic and emergent listening (being able to put yourself in another's shoes). This is a great video for people who work with children.

John Corrigan - Are We Listening To Our Children?

10 July 2013

"The Great Dinosaur Discoveries" by Darren Naish

In reading this book I had a grand realization: most of our misconceptions about which dinosaurs lived and ate which other dinosaurs is because we know dinosaurs better by the order they were discovered than the order in which they lived. For example, ankylosaurus and stegosaurus died off long before tyrannosaurus-rex started chomping stuff.

Interesting tidbit: A man was sent out to find a triceratop but came back with a t-rex. His sponsors were shocked and elated.

02 July 2013

Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling

Gutman points out that smiling is ingrained in our biology and persons who smile frequently typically have better, longer lives. Go figure.

Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling

25 June 2013

21 June 2013

An Analysis for Transition from Spreadsheets to Fusion Tables, part 3

This is part of a multipart post taken from my essay entitled "An Analysis for Transition from Spreadsheets to Fusion Tables". It may sound boring, but a questioning reader may find it rather useful to understand the value of Google Sheets and Google Fusion Tables in the workplace and readers may also find additional ideas for improving their usage of either product.

Costing Evolution

While Fusion Tables promises much in the way of streamlining operations and improving managed data sharing, it is not without some drawbacks. Even when entering the Promised Land, some of the wonders of Egypt had to be left behind.

Return to Structure

To start with, Fusion system would be a return to the database structure abandoned by Company data. While column changes would still be possible, they would be more difficult than currently supported (but still much easier the previously). Further, Views and data merges are non-additive. Once they have been completed columns can be removed but no new ones—or old ones, including one previously removed—can be added. To accomplish addition requires building a new merge or View (unless introducing a completely new data set). Because of this, it is likely to take several attempts to get the proper blend of data. Removing old attempts will invalidate links and bookmarks requiring them to be updated.

Lack of Presence

Those “feel good” social markers (namely the cell highlights) are completely absent from Fusion Tables. In fact, working on a Fusion Table is a bit like working in a black hole: there is no indication that any other user has a Fusion Table open let alone where they are working. The only indication that one is not working alone is if data changes after a browser refresh.

Stale Data

There is no real-time updating. All updates to a Fusion Table happen on refresh. This can increase the chances of overlapping work, duplicate data entry or functioning on old data.

More Data, Less Interpretation

Fusion Tables does not permit anything near the robust formulas of a spreadsheet. While they permit basic math and a few other limited functions, if/then and other comparative functions are limited at best but are frequently missing entirely. Useful features like links to clients folder based on online enrollment suddenly become impossible.

While it is possible, and even likely, that more powerful functions will be added as Fusion Tables continue to develop, they are not available now. The same is true for our conditional formatting. This shifts some of the analysis that Company data does automatically back to the user. Missing information will blend in with complete information, poor ratings will sit quietly beside good ones and words will go back to being just a number relying of the user to remember what the values mean. These issues can be migrated with concerted training but it is less elegant to have to track such drab details manually.

No Printing

Perhaps one of the most glaringly absent features is an inability to print. None of the data sets, Views or reports can be printed. Instead, they are locked securely in their digital existence. The nearest ability to print them is to export them and print from the exportation.

Dismissal of Menus

Currently, Fusion Tables lacks the ability to be scripted with custom menus. This means that running custom scripts will no longer be as simple as going to the Scripts menu and telling it to run. In fairness, this will only effect two scripts that were tied directly to Company data directly and thus should not be considered a major concern.

19 June 2013

An Analysis for Transition from Spreadsheets to Fusion Tables, part 2

This is part of a multipart post taken from my essay entitled "An Analysis for Transition from Spreadsheets to Fusion Tables". It may sound boring, but a questioning reader may find it rather useful to understand the value of Google Sheets and Google Fusion Tables in the workplace and readers may also find additional ideas for improving their usage of either product.

The Promises of Fusion

Some number of months ago, Google released a new product, Fusion Tables, to the public. While Fusion Tables are designed to handle large amount of data, they present a compelling opportunity for evolution to the Ecosystem. Such progression, however, does not come without some sacrifice.

Fusion Tables represent a return to the database format we had originally abandoned when creating the Ecosystem, but with some twists. With an eager excitement I began a new project called “Fusion system”, a functional prototype of our Company data spreadsheet converted to a set of Fusion Tables, to test out the potential of this new system. Adoption of Fusion system would not mean throwing out all of our spreadsheets, just converting our largest, most complicated spreadsheet into a Fusion Table. The rest of the Ecosystem would remain the same.

Custom Data Combination

One of the biggest benefits of the Fusion Tables is the ability to easily combine data across different tables without having to permanently combine the data. In fact, temporary “joins” as they are called in database jargon, are part of the Fusion Table backbone. It allows for almost endless, non-destructive data merging. This, in conjunction with what we smart data propagation, makes it advantageous to segregate data into logical groupings rather than a large conglomerate as we did with Company data because relevant data can be pulled and combined whenever desired for an enhanced view and, unlike importRange, this is accomplished more reliably.

Data Propagation

Data, no matter where it was originally stored, where it ends up being presented or with what other data it ends up being merged, always remains editable. More importantly, changes to data—again, without regard to where and what—are propagated throughout all iterations of the data so that wherever the data is presented, it is always the newest revision.

This ability for universal editing means that there would be no reservation in creating customized data sets because there would be no break in the data being viewed. In theory, each user could have a set of tables that have been tailored for efficiency in their specific task. This is vast improvement over our current spreadsheet that enable one-way transmission of data (they can read data from other sheets but cannot push edits back).

Record Editing

Fusion Tables have a built in record editing mechanism that we have not been able to mimic with satisfactory reliability in the Company data. Moreover, this edit mechanism adapts to the columns presented in the current view of the data. That is, users are always presented with an editing screen that matches the current table.

This improved presentation of editing help to ensure that data is only intentionally edited as the editing mode must be expressly entered (instead of simply typing over existing data) and prevents users from unknowingly switching their editing to a different row.

Filtering

Fusion Tables presents a simplified data filtration system that makes it easier to restrict the current data view based on any number of criteria. While the Fusion Table filtering is not as robust as that found in Sheets, it is more suitable for our purposes.

Custom Presentations

While Fusion Tables focuses on managing large data sets, it is also built to present the data with great flexibility. To this end, the system has a built in ability to present the data in many different ways including rows and cards. Rows are essentially echoes of the original table but cards allow for an almost endless customization of the data presentation. Using simplified HTML tags for the layout, cards permit users to quickly build templates for how the data will be presented. The presentation engine is not the most feature rich; still it enables basic reporting on a level that is extremely difficult within a spreadsheet all with ease.

Limited Views

Views, as they are called in Fusion Tables, are custom built representations of data sets. They can be crafted from a single table or several tables, they can include custom filters or present full data sets. Of most interest, however, is that once a View has been created and shared it is locked in. That is, the filters and tables connected to the View cannot be altered. All of the previously mentioned features are still available: the View will always show the most recent data and, if editing is allowed, will pass data edits back to the original data set. This is particularly useful in solving the problem of presenting each client with the most current data while not having to manage separate data stores and, at the same time, keeping other clients’ data protected.

An additional use of Views is in considering parent/child relationships. For example, some clients need access to information from several other clients by way of leasing agreement but the leasing clients should not have access to other leasing client data. Using Fusion Tables we can provide a View for the Lessor client that includes all the leasing client while providing individual leasing clients with Views of only their own data. This process would not require any additional data entries or any extra data updates. All data would be current and protected.

Improved Reporting

It would be wrong to say that Fusion Table will represent vastly improved external reporting (i.e. reports generated for email or print). Instead, reporting will go much the same as it has before, just run a little faster. Currently, entire data sets are reviewed in the process of finding the relevant information; scripts compare, line by line, data against a series of criterion. Fusion Tables uses an SQL like query methodology which means instead of importing a whole data set and then sifting through it to find the few relevant lines we can simply request the data that matching a given criterion and dispense with the sifting entirely.

17 June 2013

An Analysis for Transition from Spreadsheets to Fusion Tables, part 1

This is part of a multipart post taken from my essay entitled "An Analysis for Transition from Spreadsheets to Fusion Tables". It may sound boring, but a questioning reader may find it rather useful to understand the value of Google Sheets and Google Fusion Tables in the workplace and readers may also find additional ideas for improving their usage of either product.

Beginning the Ecosystem

Back when I first started working for my current employer, they were using an Access database. I say “they” because I did not use it any more than I had to. Instead, I instantly started adapting their systems to something I knew would handle the work better: Google Sheets.

I knew some of the issues the old systems had before even starting work. Being traditional software, the software and the data were bound to the hardware. Employees had to be at work in order to do work. This meant frequent calls to the office while on the road, daring “read-only” copies of the database for extend trips (and corresponding lists of changes that needed to be made) and messing remote control setups when phone calls were not enough.

Even on-site, there were still issues. Certain changes and reports could only be made while everyone was out of the system. Many days there was heavy coordination between users to determine who should access when and for how long and to make what changes.

I am no expert on Access change tracking (or Access in general) but there was no revision history. The database was always live and living. Catastrophic fails could only be recovered from the last back up. For small projects, this is an acceptable risk but considering that the entire company was centered around that single data store made the current revision controls difficult.

Finally, reporting was dismal. This is likely more because I was inexperienced with the tools, but even considering that, I knew that there were easier ways to liberate the data and combine it in new and interesting ways.

My first project was to create what would be dubbed “The Ecosystem”. It was so named because it would be a collection of spreadsheets, forms, documents, scripts and drawings that were all designed to flow and interact together. While the old database had provided a mostly unified data front, it was difficult to get elegant reports (again, more likely an issue with my skill than the actual software) and, perhaps more importantly, it was difficult to get the database to talk to anything beyond itself, let alone beyond our network.

Google Drive

The first leg of the project was actually not the data, it was the files. We had an onsite file server which was used to store all client documents. PDF files galore! There were folders for adding units, folders for removing units, folders for thinking about changing units, folders for actually doing it and more. Inside each folder were the pertinent files for the work done. Accuracy of records is rarely an issue because we tend to keep a record of everything.

The transition was smooth and easy. One day everything was on the server, the next day it started moving off. Files that were in transit to Google Drive were simultaneously moved to a new location on the server so that everyone knew that the files were in transit and not to make changes to the original documents. Using Google Drive, files were downloaded as soon as they had been uploaded so shortly everyone had access to the files.

There are a few added bonuses to using Google Drive for file storage. This method provides a form of distributed backup in that the software synchronizes a file across all of the computers to which the file has been shared. Previously, all data was hosted on the server which meant that a server crash would be detrimental to our operations. Now a server loss would be unfortunate but not detrimental. In fact, loss of any one computer would not affect operations beyond the function of the assigned user. This distributed scenario also works well for traveling users who can now access all but the most recent documents offline.

On the negative side, we have noticed that mass file changes can take an exorbitant amount of time to synchronize and has a high failure rate.

Company Data

The key component of the Ecosystem is a massive spreadsheet called “Company data”. This spreadsheet replaced the original database. While we lost some flexibility by converting a database into a spreadsheet, we gained far more power than we lost.

Access: Anytime, Anywhere

Putting Company data online instantly evolved our access options. Users can now access our data on their phones, tablets and computers while at home, across the state and, of course, at the office. No matter where we are, we can access the system. Google Drive apps provide adequate offline capability so that even if a device does not have an active internet connection, users can still see the data and edit it when connection is reestablished.

(While it would be superior to be able to edit the data while offline and sync when connected again, I can understand the immense technical issues with such a feat—not the least of which is figuring out conflict notification and resolutions—and we are quite content with the portability of data we currently enjoy; a vast improvement over our previous options.)

Most of the data transitioned very easily from the database into the spreadsheet. A separate sheet was created within Company data for each major table (i.e. “Truck data”, “Trailer data”, “Driver data”, etc.). While in some cases this combined multiple tables into a single sheet, we found that it generally worked with efficiency while reducing overlap and duplication of information.

Separate spreadsheets could have been created to handle the different tables and data types but we found it more efficient (for formulas, reporting and users) to put everything “under the same roof.” It is easier to say, “Everything that used to be in the old database can now be found here.”

Ad Hoc Modification

An unexpected benefit of Company data being a spreadsheet is that it became easy to modify the data structure. We began rearranging the column based on their logical groupings (i.e. keeping specialized columns together), moving columns most frequently referenced to the front and removing superfluous columns entirely.

While this was possible with the old database, such changes could not be done during live operations while everyone was in the database. The ease of change the structure in the spreadsheet means that changes are often instigated more by active users than the data keepers.

The changes could also be done by anyone, which is not necessarily a good thing. It is possible for a disgruntled or absent minded employee to easily rearrange the spreadsheet. We estimated the risk of such happening to be minimal as the changes are likely be noticed quickly and are easily recovered.

Formulas

One of my greatest qualms with a database is the incredibly static nature of the data or rather what can be done with it. Data in a spreadsheet is also inherently static but, being a spreadsheet, can easily be brought to life with formulas.

It is better to not think of formulas in the boring algebraic sense but in the more dynamic programmatic sense. A simple example is an early column that we added to Company data to indicate whether a client had registered for our online services or not. The first formula we had was an example of simple algebra: “=if(isblank(onlineKey), “No”, “Yes”)”, this simply puts a “Yes” or “No” in the column indicating if the client has an online key (an indication of online services registration). This formula was eventually replaced with a more programmatic one: “=if(isblank(onlineKey), “Not available”, hyperlink(‘http://spreadsheetURL’ & onlineKey, ‘Open’))”, which would provides users with a link to the client’s online services menu—a much more helpful feature in troubleshooting than simply saying, “Yes, the client is registered but you have to figure out how to get into their account before you can walk them through their problem.”

The ability to include not just basic information but more advanced features (such as the hyperlink) based on certain information allowed for an already valuable tool to become more useful and allowed for quick integration with new features and components of the Ecosystem as they came online. It should also be noted that this rapid adaptation via formulation was only possible when used in conjunction with the ability to simply and quickly alter the columns of the tables.

Collaboration

In the old database each user worked in a high degree of isolation. While we could all be social offline, there was no sociality online. Previous to my experiences, I would likely have scoffed at someone suggesting the need to be socially engaged online with people who sit within a few feet of your desk. I have learned, however, that it is more comfortable to work collaboratively online with people when there is a social presence online too.

Our Company data spreadsheet provides two tools that make online collaboration easy and natural. The first (and less useful of the two) in an in-sheet chat feature. With a click and a few keystrokes we can send a message to everyone looking at the spreadsheet. This is useful for moments when we are about to rearrange a sheet or, more frequently, resort the data (while the data will remain, its row will likely change, so it is a nice courtesy to inform other users before doing it).

The second tool (and, by far, the more useful of the two) is the cell highlight. It is an automatic feature that puts a brightly colored border around whatever cell each of the other users has clicked on. The highlight is a unique color for each user (though not each instance), moves in near real-time and includes a cell shading feature when the user is actually editing the cell (useful for knowing when something is about to update). While this presence feature may seem almost trivial, I have seen it profoundly affect our online workflow: reducing the online mystery, streamlining data input and work assistance.

Online collaboration is fraught with many pitfalls, one of which is overlapping work and conflict resolution. It is frustrating to be working through some data updates only to find out that someone else has been updating the same data, either right before or after you. In either case, time and effort were wasted. The cell highlight lets the users know where each other are working and, by inference, what they are working one. Duplication of work almost never happens with real-time collaboration tools.

This reduction of mystery also allows us to streamline data input. For example, if a user is adding a new row of data, another user can jump in and copy down any formatting and formulas to complete the input faster. The first user can focus on inputting the information (which only they have) while the second user can focus on the mundane (which they can access). This allows for more efficient work on a project when previously we would have been forced to separate the work for fear of overlap.

Beyond streamlining there are many times when working on a project with other users across the office where someone will be inquiring about a piece of data. In these cases, being able to see their highlight makes it easier to help quickly understand the context of their inquiry and to guide them (through one’s own highlight) to the answers they are looking for. This is especially true when they are on the phone with a client and we can casually identify the information they are looking at, anticipate what they will probably need and show them the relevant information.

Colors

While visual appeal should by no means be a “deal breaker,” it is certainly nice to be able to manipulate the presentation of Company data to look nice. Beyond just looking nice, we are able to adapt the spreadsheet to include the color schemes used in our branding. This helps to maintain a consistent image internally and thus externally. In general, we have matched our colors consistently across the work flow process so that banners printed on forms (and sometimes the color of the form itself) and shown in ancillary spreadsheets coordinate with the banner atop the appropriate Company data sheet.

In addition to making the spreadsheets look prettier, we also use their conditional formatting to quickly communicate important information through color coding. For example, cells with missing, non-vital information is flagged in a subtle yellow while missing vital information is flagged in a dull red (not too distracting but very apparent). Ratings and status updates also benefit from color coding; good is green, bad is red. This color coding helps users to quickly identify the most critical information, or lack thereof, in a data set.

Reporting

With formulas that incorporate programmatic formulas, we found a greatly reduced need for many basic reporting functions. Who wants to wait for a report to run when they can instantly sort, filter and read information they are looking for in the sheet already open on the screen?

Advanced reporting, however, has blossomed in the Ecosystem. This is for two reasons: the first is a semi-dedicated report designer (being myself) and a robust information infrastructure designed to be tapped for data.

Naming

This reporting friendly design came in the transition process from the old database to the new spreadsheet and was comprised mostly of consistent naming. For example, each of the sheets are labeled with a single plural descriptor and the word “data”. Additionally, each of the column names from the old database were tuned for optimal communication of the contents of the columns. Sometimes the column names are a bit lengthy, but that is preferable to not knowing what information can be found in the column.

While naming may seem something of a trivial nature, there can be a vast difference between building a report with highly cryptic placeholders that leave little indication for the casual user as to the data that should be expected and a robust naming scheme that removes most doubt about the expected data.

In a similar vein, placeholder tags in template reports are also verbosely named. For example, all client data related placeholders are flagged with a preceding “co” and our company data related placeholders (e.g. ratings generated using proprietary methods) are flagged with a preceding “tt”. While not as friendly as reading a completed report, this method still allows easy reading.

Styles

We identified two possible venues for running the reports and we use both depending on the usage case.

The first method generates the report entirely using internal process. This is best used for shorter reports that do not need to be visually sophisticated but where functionality is preferred. Most frequently, these are reports that we email out (either for employee usage or directly to clients). While such reports lack visual impact because we strip them of almost all visualizations, the bland environment actually improves readability because there are fewer distractions. In this case, blandness works very favorably for us: simple visual effects, such as font size changes, bolding or italicizing, can be used to quickly guide the reader to the most critical information.

The rule of simple visual presentation is particularly important considering that this style is most frequently used for emailed reports in which advanced visuals garner little respect and often discarded entirely leaving the recipient with a horrid jumbled mess of code and words. Keeping the presentation simple with infrequent accents reduces the chance for an unreadable message while keeping the message clean and readable.

Templates

The second method is almost the complete opposite of the first. While the data arranged and concatenated internally, the report layout is prebuilt in a documented template. This allows for the templates to be highly visually sophisticated, though in many cases less functional. Such a tradeoff is acceptable because generally these reports are delivered through print or specialized online methods and are intended to be more attention grabbing than day-to-day communications.

While we still strive to keep the layout clean and simple by reducing visual clutter and mitigating unnecessary distraction (i.e. not bolding and italicizing without good cause) we do allow for added accents to make it look better. For example, headers vary in color (to coordinate with the Company data color scheme) to differentiate the sections and a standardize company footer may be included.

Perhaps most importantly with the templates is that they are shared documents which means that they can be edited by anyone. That is, it does not take a feat of programming to alter the presentation of the reports. This was an important feature to prevent “personnel lock-in” while also greatly simplifying the process of programming the reports. Even simple visual alteration can be difficult to program, especially when compared with the ease of changing the look in even a basic text editor. Using templates allows for more time to be spent programming functionality instead of troubleshooting design through code.

Custom Menu Options

Using Google Apps Scripts, we were able to add a custom menu to the Company data spreadsheet (as well as some of our other ancillary sheets). These custom menus allow for the execution of scripts and thus expose the scripts to our users in an easily accessible manner.

One of the greatest learning experiences in building these menus options was building in protection against accidental execution. The first round of scripting merely required activation to run. This quickly led to problem of accidentally activating the wrong script. We added confirmation boxes to almost all scripts that describes what the script is about to do and then requests the user to confirm that they wish for the script to run. This generally adds a few seconds to the script’s running time but greatly reduces the number embarrassing, confusing and frequently redundant emails sent to our clients and users.

Connections

While Company data hosts most of our data, some of it feeds in from other spreadsheets. Google Sheets allows us to import this data nearly live by using a function called importRange. A good example of the usefulness of this function is our proprietary Ratings data. The source data and formulas are too complicated to want to include them in Company data, so they were set up in their own sheet. All the data in this spreadsheet is fed to a Ratings summary page which is then fed to the Company data sheet. While the data is not “live” it is very “fresh” (generally less than a minute old) and updates automatically. Breaking the two data sets apart while still being able to cross reference them made management of the data much easier.

Another example is one in which we “import” account numbers to a shared spreadsheet that tracks our progress, by company, through our work flow. Importing the data saves us the time of flipping between the tracking sheet and the Company data. Instead, all of the information we need is presented in a single view.

A drawback to using importRange is that in sharing the sheet for access, we have to enable full access to the reference sheet and the reference URL is exposed. This means that we cannot “import” data to show clients on spreadsheets that we share with them. To do so would expose other client data and represent a significant data breach. Instead, online reports generated for our clients have to have their data “pushed” to them instead of simply pulling it; this is a much more difficult process that is also less reliable.

06 June 2013

Paul Bloom: Why Do We Like What We Like?

Bloom said it well: "When you come to understand something, when you make sense of it and when you get pleasure from it, you're responding not merely to what you're looking at, not merely the physical features of the thing but to your beliefs about it: where you think it came from, who touched it, how it was made, what its deeper essence is."

Why Do We Like What We Like? (RSA)

28 May 2013

Robert Trivers: Why Do We Deceive Ourselves?

An interesting delve into many of the ways and reasons that we deceive ourselves including the facts that deception starts in utero, the smarter the child the more often they lie and 

Why Do We Deceive Ourselves? (RSA)

23 May 2013

Matthew Taylor: Left Brain, Right Brain

Taylor discusses the dichotomy those of us who enjoy democracy. At the same time we say we want to help others, we also suggest spending other people's money instead of our own. He proposes that we change the content of our political discussions.

My favorite part: recapping the studies that show that we tend to associate our successes with our skills and our failure with circumstances while we do the reverse in analyzing others.

RSA Animate - Left brain, right brain
Matthew Taylor - Left Brain, Right Brain: Human nature and political values

22 May 2013

Canary Colours

Since its first release version, Canary Coloring has used the default Adobe color picker:




To the programmer, this color arrangement is very logical and even beautiful: each row and column represents a single step through a six step progression of the three segments of the hexadecimal color system. (Just writing that statement conjures images of precessionally perfect higher orders of programmer paradise.) This is evidenced by the clustering of colors into panels of six by six. The progression of the 36 colors in each panel do not just look nice, they are also representative of three complex processes going on: base color changes, blending and shading.

The first column and top row of each panel represent the shading steps of the pure colors which are shown at the bottom of the first column and end of the top row. Stepping back from the pure color to the upper left most swatch in the panel are the six shades for each respective color. The remaining columns and rows are simply blending the corresponding shades from each column and row together.

An interesting affect to persons who frequently use paint can be observed as brighter shades blend together: they approach white. This is because in light, unlike paint, white is made by combining the three pure primary colors of light: red, green and blue. In paint, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue and when combined make black.

Each panel represents a step in another six step process of changing the base color from no red, to full red. Adjusting the blending of blue and green from the base of red allows for six shades (four actual shades plus the pure color and absence of that color) to interact with of each six swatches of the other primary colors in every possible combination. This gives the color palette a total of 216 colors, which are considered the “web safe colors”.

Back in the early days of the internet (as in: the days of Netscape) those 216 colors were the only colors that a developer could reliably use across all web browsers and computers. Today we are spoiled with the fairly consistent rendering of the full range 16.78 million colors possible for display technology (not to mention the animation, music and videos we also get to enjoy).

216 colors is not accidental nor is the frequent usage of six arbitrary. Indeed, as I have frequently been taught by programmers, few numbers in the computer sciences are incidental.

Numbers in the computer world are generally stored in a hexadecimal format. For definition, we normally use a decimal number system. This is not referring to the numbers that come after a “.” but rather the number of items that increment the count to the next category. In a decimal system (also called “base ten”), there are 10 digits (zero through nine) before the next level is incremented. This means that the highest two digit number can be is equivalent to 99. In a hexadecimal system (also called “based 16”), there are 16 digits before the next level is incremented. To effectively communicate this, the letters “a” through “f” are used to substitute digits greater than nine. For example, “a” is equivalent to 10 and “f” is equivalent to 15 (15 plus a count for zero gives us sixteen). This means that the highest two digit number can be is equivalent to 256 (or “ff”, 16 times 16). 256 is a favorite number for computers because it can be easily built using 8-bits (while use of 8-bits is important, it is beyond the scope of this essay).

With the hexadecimal system, all 16.78 million colors a can easily be represent with a color code such as “ffffff” (pure white) or “0000ee” (the blue used by most web browsers to highlight a link). These same colors using a decimal system would be “000000000” and “000000238” respectively. Fewer digits in a sequences means less code, faster programs and more accurate communication, all very good things when under the tight constraints of sending data across the world.

Going back to the color picker: the color progression is not simply shading and blending but is actually a mathematical progression in hexadecimal. Following are the color codes from the first panel, notice how each row in the first column and each column in the first row increase by “33” (“33” in hexadecimal is actually 51 which, when adding zero makes 256 shades) while each of the other rows and columns is simply a combination of the first row and first column:

000000 000033 000066 000099 0000cc 0000ff
003300 003333 003366 003399 0033cc 0033ff
006600 006633 006666 006699 0066cc 0066ff
009900 009933 009966 009999 0099cc 0099ff
00cc00 00cc33 00cc66 00cc99 00cccc 00ccff
00ff00 00ff33 00ff66 00ff99 00ffcc 00ffff

While most hexadecimal color systems order the colors as red, green, blue, this system orders the colors as red, blue, green. This first block has no red (hence the "00" as the first two digits) and then progress the blue down by row (the third and fourth digits) and green by column (the final two digits). I will not go through the boring process of iterating the second (or anything other) block of numbers because they are almost identical except the first two digits are "33" and thus red is incremental in each panel with the blending and shading of blue and green remaining the same.

Unfortunately, beautiful numbers does not necessarily translate into a beautiful interface and the color picker did not do a good job of letting artists find the color and shade they were looking for (or, as my nephew said, "I need grey in my palette".)

To the artist, this color arrangement is almost useless. For example, and addressing my nephew's point, finding grey is a chore. There are four shades of grey plus black and white. Black and white are easy to find in the top left and bottom right corners respectively. Greys however, are a bit harder to find: the first grey from black is in the top row, middle panel, second column, second row. The second grey is in the third panel, the next column right and the next row down from the previous grey. This pattern progresses through the panels to white in the bottom row, last panel, last column, last row. This makes perfect sense when looking at the numbers, but not when looking at the colors.

Most often, when picking a color, we have a general idea of what color we want and we want to compare the shades and blends within a group of colors to get the right match. Think of paint swatches. They are clustered by base color with each swatch strip containing different shades of a given color. This system allows us to quickly compare a particular color against another particular color. Noting this, I set out to rebuild the palette to be more useful for artist (not programmers).

My first thought to present a more artistically appealing color picker was to rearrange the colors by hand and sight. I got to my third swatch before I gave up. My problem: the colors progressed three dimensionally (base color, blending and shading) making it rather daunting to rearrange 216 swatches. I stopped working on the colors after rearranging three swatches; then I realized that if math got me into this predicament the math could get me out of it.

My second thought was to transpose the data twice. What do you get when you transpose a data set twice? The same thing you started with (like rotating an image 180 degrees, twice).

My third thought was to transpose the entire data set and then transpose and mirror every other panel. This transformed the original color palette into something beautiful:



Notice how the colors now gradually (well, as gradually as can be done with a 20 percentage point increment) change between base colors by transitioning through the various shades and blends. This arrangement makes finding the right red (out of the available 30 variants of red) or green or blue much easier because the colors are generally grouped together.

(Oh, and I added the greys and basic colors at the bottom to make them even easier for my nephew.)

15 May 2013

"Feynman's Rainbow" by Leonard Mlodinow

Part biography (on both Feynman and Mlodinow) and part philosophical exploration, Mlodinow details his quest to find self-understanding in his physics related career endeavors.

Interesting tidbit: String theory, something that we are just starting to grapple with, was mocked and missed for years before finally getting the last formula it needed to make mathematical sense.

14 May 2013

Alain de Botton: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Like a classic twist on "Dirty Jobs", Botton discusses some of the crucial occupations that keep our modern society working but that we never think about. This, Botton argues, leads us to feel a lack of wonder and awe at things that used to bring us great wonderment because we are so disconnected from our world.

Alain de Botton - The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (RSA)

30 April 2013

Diane Coyle: The Economics of Enough

Coyle argues that because we assume that if we have more we are happier when in reality this practice is, in many ways, robbing us of future happiness to have more money now.

The Economics of Enough (RSA)

16 April 2013

Julia Sweeney has "The Talk"

So, when I first read the title I thought to myself, "surely they do not mean 'The Talk'". But, yes, it is a humorous discussion of "The Talk" with her young daughter. No worries though, it is clean.

Julia Sweeney has "The Talk

11 April 2013

Kathryn Schulz: Don't regret regret

When processing regret, we go through four stages: denial, bewilderment, self-punishment and perseveration (focusing repetitively). Schulz suggests that instead of repeating the pattern, we should: take comfort in its universality, laugh at yourself and let time pass.

Kathryn Schulz: Don't regret regret

05 April 2013

"Moby-Dick; or, The Whale" by Herman Melville

Lessons learned from Moby Dick:
"I was a good Christian... How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship ?—to do the will of God— that is worship. And what is the will of God ?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me— that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator."
It seems all too common that we of particular persuasion (religious or otherwise) shun individuals in the name of our affiliation (for example, aversion to association with Muslims, the godless or the godful) when most of our affiliations actually require such associations in order to promote conversion. To be sure, this problem is as prevalent among the secular world as the religious one. How often do those learned of one persuasion denounce all others (biologist denounce psychologists who, in turn, denounce the social scientists). The sad truth is that all could be greatly benefited by closer association.

"I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck," who is not afraid of a whale."One should not sail with the fearless."
While I do not regularly sail, there is still some wisdom to not becoming entangled in works with people who do not have a healthy fear. Without such fear, persons tend to be careless as they barrel head-long towards disaster.

"...you mustn't swear that way when you're preaching. That's no way to convert sinners, cook!"
One of my favorite parts of the book is when "Old Fleece" is delivering, as commanded, a midnight sermon to the sharks snacking on a dead whale in tow. He starts with a fiery sermon but is reprimanded by the commander for using such harsh language. It is often much easier to get what we want when we are nice.

"Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?"
Ahab asked every ship they passed, "Have ye seen the white whale?" With such consistent and persistent questioning, Captain Ahab finally found his arch nemesis.

"...Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."
Captain Ahab and his First Mate Starbuck have a moving moment in which Ahab concedes the absurdity of his pursuit and also gives in to Starbuck's pleadings to return home. Had Ahab done so, many would have been happier, and alive. Instead, we find Ahab uttering these words.

27 March 2013

"Fighting Ships: 1750-1850" by Sam Willis

A good overview of the use, battling and development of naval vessel from around the world.

Interesting tidbit: Original night telescopes showed the image upside-down because the extra lens needed to flip the image would degrade the image too much.

26 March 2013

Mark Earls and Alex Bentley: I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping social behaviour

Remarkably, humans generally spend their lifetimes mimicking others. Even when we are adults and think that we are making our own "big" choices when we are still generally following social cues.

I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping social behaviour (RSA)

21 March 2013

Susan Cain: The power of introverts

Cain challenges us to respect the power of introverts instead of expecting or worse, pushing, them to be extroverts.

Susan Cain: The power of introverts

19 March 2013

The Epic of Gilgamesh

I was recently watching some old Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and watched a highly acclaimed (though not particularly liked by me) episode called "Darmok". In this episode, Darmok (the alien) is trying to teach Picard how to converse. Darmok's people use stories to communicate everything which makes it very difficult for Picard to understand because the stories mean nothing to him. To overcome this, they tell each other cultural stories:

I used to hate this episode... then Picard mentioned Gilgamesh. Then I read several versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Then I decided that this episode was alright.

15 March 2013

Thoughts on dinosaurs


Do you remember that part in Jurassic Park when the little boy is teasing Dr. Grant about his book not being very thick? Then the doctor's wife chimes in, "Yours was fully illustrated." I love illustrated books (mostly anyway, some things should just be left to the imagination). Especially if they are about something really cool like dinosaurs.

I guess I am still on a dinosaur kick. I have two more thoughts on the subject.

One should always catch on dinosaur reading before trying to answer questions about them. A lot has changed in the past decade alone. Things that used to be considered "wild speculation" about them are now taught as fact. Brontosaur and apatosaurus are the same thing... Birds are dinosaurs... Dinosaurs were killed by a meteor... We know some of their colors...

Second, I am still not sure which is more terrifying:
The giant velociraptors that Jurassic Park wrongly depicts (Based of the size, I think they were actually showing deinonychus:
4-5 foot tall deinonychus
2-3 foot tall velociraptor









but who I am to question Steven Spielberg. Graphics from Wikipedia.org)

Or... that velociraptors were covered in feathers, vastly improving their jumping capabilities.

13 March 2013

"The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs" by Dougal Dixon

Dixon's book is a very tastefully illustrated and fairly modern book about dinosaurs.

Interesting tidbit: T-Rex had long arms compared to many of its cousins.

08 March 2013

"The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs" by Gregory S Paul

Dinosauria is such a fascinating subject. This book opens with a rather in-depth overview of what we know (and what we are guessing) about dinosaurs and attempts to catalog most of the better know dinosaurs.

Interesting tidbit: We have actual preserved impressions of dinosaur skin (in "mummified" samples). In some case, we even know what colors it was.

07 March 2013

02 March 2013

A Muse on Whales

Whales weep not, neither do they sorrow. For they, more so than any other creature, know of nothing to cause either. They are born in the midst of their very womb, a womb they will only leave for mere moments as they leap out of the water into the infinite sky above.

Whales worry not, neither do they fret. For they, more so than any other creature, know that the earth, their true mother, will always provide for their every need. So, they are left to ponder their existence. Not in the same lowly way as a man, but from all, to all, for all.

Whales cry not, neither do they shed any tears. For they, more so than any other creature, know only of being surrounded by joy. Their greatest joys are shown in their bounding out of the ocean's soothing embrace and in the songs they sing from the ocean glades.

01 March 2013

"When Life Nearly Died" by Michael J Benton

Benton does a fantastic job detailing the evolution of geology, paleontology and other related sciences over the past couple of centuries. The author actually details the two largest mass extinctions, though he gives extra coverage to the larger of the two (which is the namesake of the book).

Interesting tidbit: most of our knowledge of these past two (of the five great extinction) has been put together over the past two decades. Sometimes I think that everything we know about the 'dinosaurs' we have known forever, but no, it is common for us to have only recently figured it out.

26 February 2013

Matthew Taylor: 21st century enlightenment

Science has helped us to realize that we are bad at guessing what will make us happy in the future, bad at knowing what made us happy in the past and, in general, bad at guessing how the world works. Taylor argues that modern enlightenment needs to focus more on fostering emphatic capacity and less on pursuing progress for the sake of progress.

RSA Animate - 21st century enlightenment
Matthew Taylor - 21st century enlightenment (RSA)

25 February 2013

The Night is Sad

Note: I wrote this some time ago (as in several years ago). I am not sure where it came from though I am thinking that I woke up in the night and forgot that I should have been sleeping and instead started writing.

The sadness of the night seeps in through the open window. Like the gentle breeze it rustles my hair and fills my nostrils with its sweet ways. If not for this, the quietly crying night, I would myself be asleep. But when the night is sad, how can I sleep?

I feel that I must listen to its sad song and cry with it. Somehow we, crying together, can be healed of her pain and heartache. Why is she sad? Scorned by some ancient lover past, betrayed by a dear friend or perhaps the death of a precious star that she spent so much time and effort to keep alive. In the end, it doesn't matter why. What matters is that I am here to hear her weeping sobs and console her with what little I have to offer, just like she has been there for me so many times before.

Tears all gone, we stop and wait. Tick, tick, tick. The seconds pass as we contemplate the future.

Futures all considered, we drift to sleep. Drip, drip, drip. The thoughts pass between us until hope and life are restored.

Me and the night, together once again.

20 February 2013

11 February 2013

Take Stock


There are times in life when you are prompted to take stock of where you are and what you are doing. You may even take a moment to reconcile the two to each other.

And when the prompting comes, it is most important that you act on it. Such promptings do not come often enough or reliably enough to be ignored.

When you choose to reconcile the facets that make you, it will be a long and difficult process to faithfully compare your dreams to reality, your expectations to performances.

And you will want to reconcile the two. The real power of these introspective moments comes when you discover what more you can do.

Take time to craft a plan while your vision is clear and your thoughts are focus. More importantly, take time to write the plan down so that you can read it later.

And when you write it down, make it clear as possible. Many a brilliant word has been lost because they were not recorded clearly enough.

When taking in the moment, try to make it a rich, endearing experiences that can soak and penetrate your being so that they can be treasured and reflected upon in the future.

And when you reflect upon these moments, and you should reflect upon them often, you can be reminded about your life plan. The one you made when comparing.

Follow the plan that you craft until life breaks too far away from it. You will find solace and comfort in knowing what has been done and what yet remains.

And life will break away from the plan. Sometimes it will happen right away and sometimes it will take a long time. Either way, revel in chaos of it all.

As the chaos threatens to consume, remember to step back and breathe… deep… long… breaths… until you can collect your wits again. Wit may save your life.

And even if wit will not save you, it will at least make life, or death, more bearable. Maybe making death bearable is all that can be done. Maybe that will be enough.

In the deepest depths though, you will realize that you are not dying, you are just not living. We were meant to live and life hurts when it is not being used.

And so, you begin to live. You climb mountains, ride rhinos, chatter bears and take every challenge that is thrown at you and you feel fantastic.

Feeling fantastic puts you on top of the world. You find that for once in your life, you, and you alone, are in command of it all.

And then you relax on a much needed vacation. Instead of adventuring throughout the world, you keep it low-key for a while.

While on your vacation you start remembering back when you used to work. It seems like so long ago even though it has only been a few days.

And then suddenly, almost inextricably, your chest is swelling with a great desire to do something. Anything. Relaxing is killing you!

In a burst of vigor you surge forward. A glance at your plan, written in clarity, reminds you of all the things that you should be doing.

And you get back to work, trying to make up for time lost while relaxing. Vacation was fun, but there is still so much to do.

Like a bear waking from a long hibernation you burst onto the scene. Nothing works faster than you, harder than you, smarter than you.

And you do all the work because no one else is competent to do it. No one else can come close to matching you. They are losers.

Then you realize that you are the loser because you are the one so caught up things in things that do not matter that you have forgotten to live once again.

And you start to scorn yourself for being so dumb. How could you have got so caught in such a silly game with yourself?

There comes a prompting, a small wriggling in your toes that makes you think that you should take stock of where you are and what you are doing.

07 February 2013

Jeffrey Alexander and Gordon Lynch: The Power of the Sacred

An interesting discussion about “sacred” things (not in the traditional religious sense, but in a morally impacting sense) and how these “timeless realities” govern society in general.

05 February 2013

31 January 2013

A Hard Life Without Empathy

I recently met a young man whose life was “made.” His parents were rich and give him a generous monthly stipend, he had a fat trust account waiting for him when he turned 25 years old and had lacked little (if anything) growing up. Interestingly, he was not a spoiled brat. Not in the traditional sense at least. He was well mannered, generally respected the space and possessions of others and even had used his intelligence for somewhat worthwhile causes.

In addition to a wealthy upbringing, his life was “made” in other ways: he had never had a rough patch in his life. High School had been a breeze, his family was almost picture perfect, people flocked to him to be his friend, he had had a one girlfriend and had never experience manual labor.

As I associated with him during his first semester of college, I grew to enjoy his generally pleasing demeanor and upbeat, good, clean, fun loving attitude. While we did not hang out a lot, he lived with some friends of mine and so I would periodically run into him.

I was tempted to be jealous of him from time to time—I love the thought of a trust account and the thought of how my life would be different if everything had been handed to me—until one day when we were talking about his academic goals. He was schooling for a degree in Business Management and planned of getting a Master of Business Administration after that. I am always confused as to why anyone would get a degree in Business Management (because it teaches so few real skills and instead stuffs the heads of young people full of theories on how businesses should work), so I inquired why he was pursuing such. The answer: because his grandfather did (and got rich from it) and his dad did (and got rich from it) so too would he (and, he hoped, would get rich from it). The fatal flaw in his thinking is that he had no idea what “business” even is let alone important things like how his ancestors got rich with business degrees. He just knew that they did.

At first it was comical to probe this area of his mind but as naivety turned to ignorance and then to lack of comprehension I started to get worried. How could he get a degree in something that they knew nothing (and I mean nothing) about? To be clear, I do not expect most students pursuing university degrees or trade certificates to be experts in their field of study (if so, why would be there?). I do expect them to have at least a basic understanding of their chosen field. If one is going to spend four years of their life studying something, they should have some idea what that field entails.

There was none of that here. He knew that businesses ran stores and stores charged money and he swiped a card to pay them. He did not know how the store figured out what should go on which shelves where, what it meant to buy a share of stock or even how the store shelves got restocked. It was all a mystery.

Beyond the mysteries of the business degree he was seeking, I also became disturbingly aware of his complete lack of cognitive empathy. That is, he could not imagine what other people experienced (as opposed to affective empathy in which one can relate to others’ experiences because one has experienced similar).

That became glaringly obvious one day when he got into an argument with one of my former roommates. In this argument, the young man became vehement as he wondered how anyone could be such a failure as to be “old” (by which he was meaning, 25 years old) and not be married when he had arrange for his girlfriend of four years to marry him at age 21. Further, he could not understand how one could surpass 24 years old without getting a degree. Anyone, he exclaimed, who did not do well in school should just drop out because they were not smart enough to it and perseverance was a myth.

These were scathing words from one so young to one not much older; yet they were also very telling of the young man’s easy life. He had never known the difficulty of finding a girl that he liked who liked him back. His girlfriend seemed to not know that other boys even existed. Beyond that, he seemed to think that plans laid in teenage years were all but assured to come true. Thus a failure to be married at 21 was a failure to plan correctly and had little to do with one’s circumstances.

College, he believed, should be as easy as High School. High School was a venue that he saw very little of. He had one of the easiest High School experiences I had ever heard of including very, very generous absent policies. Further, college was just a recap of prior schooling so if you learned it the first time you should be able to show up for the test (and ace it) without issue. Perhaps ironically or perhaps tragically, he failed his first semester of classes.

Things like depression, sadness and all but the most obvious of physical pain (things like getting punched in the gut and not things like aching bones) were all just figments of imagination and as such could easily be overcome by simply dismissing the thoughts. Thus his spoiling was not in his meticulous manners but was an inability to understand the troubles of those around him.

In other words, his life had been so easy that he had never developed empathy sufficient enough to even imagine some of the most basic ailments of his associates. The saddest part for me was the realization that he would eventually have to trudge through sorrow equal to the joys he had known and that while in a dark valley that to most of us would be little more than a “bad day” he would feel like he had just descended into nethermost depths of the inner bowels of the earth never to emerge into the light of day again. Life, that which had once come so easy, was going to become seemingly very, very hard.

Only seemingly though because compared to everyone else, his troubles will be nothing new; indeed for some his soon-to-come difficult experiences would be seen as “everyday life.” This is where the darkness of his path will come. For where this young man could not have empathy for those with hard lives, others would not have sympathy for his easy life.

Realizing how much cognitive empathy has helped me in my life, I was no longer tempted to be jealous of my friend but, instead, to pity him and the smallness of his world—rather, the bigness of the world that he cannot yet understand—and the great pains of growth that I hope he accepts as he an opportunity to grasp the larger world.

That being said, if I could get a fat trust fund in addition to my empathy, I would take it.

29 January 2013

Bruce Alexander - Addiction: What to Do When Everything Else Has Failed

Alexander gives an overview on how individuals and society can change our perception of addiction to be more accurate and address the underlying causes that lead to the addiction.

Addiction: What to Do When Everything Else has Failed (RSA)

24 January 2013

Steven Levitt: Why do crack dealers still live with their moms?

Levitt breaks down a collection of data gathered about inner-city gangs and shows that there is surprisingly little money in lower ranks of the drug world.

Steven Levitt: Why do crack dealers still live with their moms? (TED)

17 January 2013

Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex

Hartford describes ways in which Trial and Error development trumps the God Complex method of development (i.e. bringing in a smart person who has all the answers). Instead of looking for the ‘single best’ answer (which Hartford shows has failed time and again), he encourages a use of the old-fashioned ‘trial and error’ (which Hartford shows generally succeeds).

08 January 2013

Dan Ariely: The Truth About Dishonesty

Ariely discusses how society has few big cheaters but is full of small cheaters who do more collective economic harm than all the big cheaters combined. Such "small" cheating comes as we distance ourselves (and our behavior) from the people we affect, thus making it easier to rationalize the harm we may cause them. Ariely also found, the cheating drops dramatically if the mind is primed with moral code, even if it is not a moral code we personally believe in.

RSA Animate: The Truth About Dishonesty
The Truth About Dishonesty (RSA)
Dan Ariely: Why we think it's OK to cheat and steal (sometimes) (TED)
Dan Ariely: Our buggy moral code
Dan Ariely asks, Are we in control of our decisions?

03 January 2013

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty

Dutton presents a theory, based on a broad variety of intriguing insights, that our perception of beauty has far less to do with our cultural upbringing and much more to do with evolution. For example, Dutton points out that beautiful landscapes with grass, some body of water (or evidence of a body of water in the distance), trees (preferably ones that would be easier to climb), evidence of wildlife and with a path are considered beautiful the world over, even in places without such nature. This, Dutton points out, is reminiscent of the savannah environment that we grew up in.

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty (TED)