30 December 2011

"50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology" by Scott O. Lilienfeld, et al

This book is a collection of myth busting study summaries (with a bit of common sense thrown in for good measure) in which they authors seem to disabuse the minds of the general public of the sometimes rampant misconceptions people have about the way their minds work. For example, we do not know how smart the human brain can be, thus the assertion that we only use 10% of it cannot be true. Further, using brain scans we have found, at one time or another, every area of the brain in use.

Interesting tidbit: blind people usually only dream with imagery if they had sight before the age of 7.

24 December 2011

Humility and Confidence

A ranting moment against a school teacher who said that Humility and Confidence were contradictory terms:
Humility and confidence may seem to conflict but in truth they can happily coexist with each other because they cover difference functions. Humility is about submission and respect for the superior. On the other hand, Confidence is about being bold enough to ask the right questions and to do the right things.

The balance can be seen in the ancients’ interactions with the gods. It was not the peasants, who let the gods do whatever they wanted, who were favored; they were abused. It was not the kings and heroes who challenged the gods who, in the end, won favor with them; they were destroyed. Instead, it was the humble but confident individuals who said, “I do not care about the consequences, I just need to keep my oaths and uphold justice.” These earned the respect of the gods, earned their favor and became legendary.

23 December 2011

"Good to Great" by Jim Collins

In his "prequel" to Built to Last Collins does an incredibly in-depth analysis of publicly traded companies that have gone from mediocre to amazing. He then break the analysis into eight thing that he and his team found in common with all of the companies.

Interesting tidbit: Most of the CEOs you have heard of have been outperformed by the CEOs on the eleven "great" companies identified in the book, most of which you probably have never heard of. 

01 December 2011

"Annals of the Former World: Basin and Range" by John McPhee

In this book, McPhee teams up with a Geology professor to explore what is known as the Basin and Range (the greater Colorado area). He talks about his exploration into the theory behind the unusual formations in the area and adds a bit of intrigue as we learn that the professor is also interested in finding old silver mines and reprocessing the discarded ore to find left behind silver (and he does). In general, this book provides a fascinating insight into a very geologically unique area of the world.

Interesting tidbit: while sand stone and silt stone look very similar to the unaided eye, sand stone is gritty when chewed on while the silt stone is creamy.

(Annals of the Former World is a collection of five different books about geology written by McPhee).

29 November 2011

Finding Yourself: Every Day

(A continuation of Finding Yourself: The Journey of Self-Discovery)

Bearing in mind that a life crisis is not about the most recent collection of experiences but about the expanse of small details processed previously, brings a moment of pause: if a life crisis is not resultant of a singular experience but from a myriad of previous experiences then perhaps instead of focusing on avoiding the singular we should focus on maintaining consistency in the myriad of choices we are confronted with every day. If we are able to shift our focus from avoiding the inevitable great tragedy to avoiding the hundreds, if not thousands, of minor choices that make the great tragedy inevitable then we can avoid the tragedy altogether.

This process of maintenance will allow us to gradually expand our perceptions so that they become elastic and thus adaptive to whatever life has to throw at us. While elasticity may not be easy to maintain, modification of our personal mantras to include this adaptable line of thinking will improve our personal flexibility. Further improvement of our personal flexibility can be gained as we shift our living references from a vast collection of tracked items to a smaller, more streamlined collection of what is most important to us. That is, instead of trying to follow and maintain contact with a plethora of objects, emotions or persons, we can focus on tracking highly important overriding goals and purposes.

Please allow a moment of clarification about the difference between “important” and “truly important,” most notably the use of the word “truly”: truly, used here, means: “in general alignment with the highest sense of truth as opposed to things that might seem true but really are not.” The distinction between the highest sense of truth and things that might seem to be, but are not, can be difficult to detect on the small, individual choice scale discussed earlier but when concerted effort is applied to distinguishing between the two an individual can often bring clarity to the choice of what is important and what is truly important. For example, after careful consideration one may determine that while money is important, housing is truly important. Or, that while food is important, closeness to family is truly important.

The process of distinguishing between important and truly important items might seem trivial, but it is critical to reducing the number of life references one has to track. Instead of needing to track every possible venue of generating money, the important task, one can track the single need of housing, the truly important task. When the principle is applied broadly across a whole life, encompassing all life references, the resulting consolidation can lead to extreme simplification.

As the number of life references is reduced so too can the effort used to track the references and the general overall cognitive processing power be reduced. Coupled with the reduction of references and the related liberation of processing power comes a freeing of the self from the mundane; instead of needing to figure out and understand a broad variety of things with exacting detail, one need only to understand a general concept and allow for the inherent flexibility in that concept to guide the decision making process.

This ability to broaden the scope of focus while reducing the number of items and the related details needed to manage an experience is critical to the freeing of cognitive power for the processing and expansion of faculties. Remember that a life crisis is caused by our experiences outstripping and outpacing our current capabilities. The liberation of processing power means that one will have additional power with which to better handle the broad flood of experiences that would otherwise overwhelm and force the maintaining of a crisis management mode.

Letting go of the mundane can be hard. We are trained from our earliest years to track, follow and monitor mundane tasks and they are presented as if they were of great worth. In many cases, indeed, in most cases, this is simply not true. Most things that we are taught to track are of little consequence. Most things we are taught to follow are simply illusions. Most things that we are taught to monitor and manmade rhythms, that while enchanting, offer little in the form of substance, especially substance of significance. Things that can be particularly hard to let go of include things that we worked hard to obtain, usually in the form of monetary reward for effort. The more expensive an item is the more care we usually give to the item. However, if the release of these burdening processes can be successfully accomplished, the mind will have added capacity to handle the new experiences of life and thus live life in a more enjoyable manner.

27 November 2011

Teachers: Methodical and Pedantic flavors

I find it interesting that teachers often teach in such a methodical and pedantic manors so as to eliminate most of the organic attributes of a lesson. Additionally, they make a strong effort to point out that they have a formally organized lesson and even though pupils respond to questions the teacher usually endeavors to make it clear that they, the teacher, had already thought of the response and planned to take the routes necessary to address the point thoroughly.

I prefer, and indeed strive to teach as such, to allow for the lesson to grow and develop organically. Instead of deciding what will and all not be discussed, teachers should try to become facilitator of a broad group discussion. In this way, much of the burden of teaching is distributed in a manner that allows for the lesson--and the students--to grow naturally.

I suppose this method is less favorable because it does not allow the teacher to pontificate and thus demonstrate the instructor's amassed knowledge and "wisdom." The strong reality is that the ability to lecture to a captive audience is nothing compared to the ability to foster an ever developing discussion in a way that captures the imagination and interest of its participants. Further, the organic discussion allows for a level of flexibility in the lesson content that the lesson can be molded, viz a via the discussion, to perfectly match the desires and interests of the group. (But, I guess all of that requires the extra effort of the teacher to know the students well enough to know what they want and are interested in.)

16 November 2011

"The Velocity of Honey: And More Science of Everyday Life" by Jay Ingram

A collection of scientific explanations of things we experience every day but do not usually things much about. Things like a drip of honey, why toast lands buttered side down, why leaves change colors in the fall and why people react negatively when a stranger was starring at them. Ingram is careful to explain the science well enough that a layman can understand it but not so deeply that it feels like a science class.

Interesting tidbit: A drip of honey, as far as we can tell (even looking at the microscopic level), never actually disconnects from the source of the dripping. In fine pictures taken of the process, there is still a thin strand of honey (invisible to the eye) that attaches the drip.

15 November 2011

Each Generation Building...

A snippet from an essay about the importance of remember. I thought it astounding how quickly the preservation of information has increased as time marches on: 

The great scholars of Rome and Greece were made possible by the recording of ideas and thoughts on papyrus, a substantially more portal system of recording than stone or wooden tablets. The development of “printing” around 200 CE greatly aided the expansion and standardization of religion across the world. When moveable type arrived some 800 years later, cumulative knowledge again surged forward. Moveable type was greatly enhanced by the printing press 400 years later which led to a surge of relatively inexpensive printed knowledge. Presses evolve tremendously in the next 450 years until they finally gave way to automated printing which allowed knowledge to be printed almost instantly without the need to laboriously set the type or manage a full scale press. Finally, in the past 50 years, aided by the personal computer revolution, knowledge is ever more frequently contained within electronic means that are instantly distributable across the world by anyone with a personal computer. Indeed, it can be said that for the first time in the history of the world, a truly global and nearly universal body of knowledge can be assessed.

11 November 2011

"The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales" by Oliver Sacks

A fun collection of bizarre medical (and mostly psychological) experiences Sacks had while practicing medicine. While few of these tails were of actual benefit to me, it was interesting to see how power the mind can be.

Interesting tidbit: Sacks' tale for which the book is named after is one where the man, a brilliant music instructor, can no longer identify patterns but only disconnected attributes (i.e. he can see the nose, eyes and mouth but no longer recognizes an face). He is still able to correctly identify his students by their body movements or "body music" as he calls it.

08 November 2011

"A New Kind of Science" by Stephen Wolfram

This was a huge book, and in all honesty I only skimmed it. Wolfram talks about the power of building simple systems. Systems so basic that they range from 1 to 256 "rules" along the lines of "when these two things are together then do this." Even with these very basic rules (especially in computer terms) he was able to build highly complex layouts, patterns and systems. He continues by identifying how this is the way that nature generally works: a very basic "rule" set leads to very complex systems (think of weather patterns, the inner workings of a star, etc).

Interesting tidbit: twisted rope (the form of rope we generally use today) has been around since at least 3000 BC. Crazy fact to find in a math book.

07 November 2011

What Accountants do for Arts and Crafts time

Some people might wonder what Accountants do for Arts and Crafts time in school. After all, it only takes a couple of minutes to calculate the number of color combinations that are possible with red, blue and yellow (there are 6). Accountants, contrary to popular belief, can be exciting people and though they might eagerly dive into figure painting like everyone else, they can still produce art pieces. For example, the following exhibit is a flow chart I made for work to depict our original order processing flow. The chart is now six years old and horribly out of date but still an example of Accounting art:

It made the Accountants giddy to see. And yes, every color and shape indicates a particular department or process types (go figure, the Accountants even turned art into a science).

28 October 2011

Rewriting Instead of Writing

I was thinking to myself the other day, "Daniel, you have not written anything good for so long." I thought back and realized it has been a while. So, I sat down to write but nothing came and I thought, "that is weird, something should be coming because you have not written forever." I then realized that while I have not been writing new material, I have been rewriting the company's Policy and Procedure Manual. I guess rewriting cryptic and draconian material can be as tiring (if not more so) than writing new creative materials.

19 October 2011

It walks like Pride, it talks like Pride but it is not Pride

Sometimes, and I am still not sure why, people--especially the pious ones--are far too quick to assign things to the "pride" category. I noted this recently as I was working on a case study for one of my classes. In this case study a team of eight college men were assigned to a varsity team and another eight men assigned to the junior varsity team. In the case, the JV team kept beating the varsity team and the varsity team kept getting slower and slower. When the teacher asked what we thought the root cause was, almost immediately the class jumped too "pride," "pride" and "pride." By the time we were done talking about pride, my eyes hurt so much from rolling that I had to hold them shut for a minute. Perhaps I have read too many books and my head is swimming with crazy theoretical ideas, but I am convinced that the entire issue was related to dominance.

The difference between pride and dominance might seem minor, but note that the proper treatment of each is completely different as is the underlying cause:

Pride is a sense of superiority because of one's unique nature. With pride, a display of a lack of respect comes because the individual believes that they could act, plan or otherwise do better than the individual currently doing. The cure for pride is whatever it takes to bring the individual to realize that they are not as special or superior as they believed they are and that while they are special, there are others who are special too and might, just might be able to do something better than they can. And if not, if they are truly the best at something, it is okay to allow others to try.

Dominance is a sense of knowing who, informally, is in charge and thus who you need to answer too. With dominance, a display of a lack of respect comes because the individual is unsure of his place in the informal social hierarchy (and it is most often men who publicly display their struggle for dominance where women generally fight behind closed doors). The cure for dominance is to allow the group to establish dominance through whatever means they would like.

Contrary to the natural inclination, the formal leader (i.e. the coach in the case) cannot dictate the terms of how this dominance is established though they can help facilitate the dominance establishment. That is to say, the leader cannot say, "we are going to throw cupcakes at each other and who ever gets creamed the least is the most dominant among you." This will not work because few people would respect this display of dominance. Instead the leader would need to think through what the individuals would respect and give them ability to express their dominance in that manner. So in the case of the jocks, perhaps a display of who can run the fastest, lift the most weight of some other such display.

Other emotional states that might be confused with pride include apathy (a lack of care about the task at hand or the individuals with whom the task is to be completed), stubbornness (a lack of desire to change, simply because it is change) and pessimism (a consistent viewing of events in the world as being negative and against the individual). While all of these might have a similar outward appearance to pride, each of them is a very different driving cause and thus would have different treatments.

21 September 2011

Finding Yourself: The Journey of Self-Discovery

Shards from the shattered remains are strewed throughout the open space like a giant exploded glass bust. Indeed, the shards were from what could be called a bust, a carefully planned and designed sculpture that was to be the young man's life. Now that sculpted bust is broken into a million tiny pieces and thrown to the edges of his known world (and for that matter beyond the edges, though he did now know anything existed beyond those edges so he could never go looking for them). Looking was not the first thing he wanted to, nor the second. Indeed, looking to pick up the broken pieces was not even on his list of things to do. Somewhere near the top was "Panic", either before or after that (no one could tell for sure) was "Cry" which blurred into "Ask Why" like a bad cursive script.

The young man, after waking up some time later—not just in the sense of getting out of bed in the morning, but actually waking from the nightmare he just survived—will look back at this experience not with fondness but with a strong respect for what happen and for the strength and courage he developed to survive it, it being part of his self-journey of discovery.

This young man is not alone in his journey: many others, indeed most of us, at one point or another suffer a situation as he did, one that forces us to stop and assess where we are and where we are headed.

I recently returned from a trip with this young man, a trip meant to allow him to shift his focus from the broken remains of his failed dreams to set new dreams in motion. It was a wonderful trip and I must admit that I enjoyed distracting myself from the realities I confront every day and, for just a moment, be able to soar wonderfully on a great adventure. While he was searching for himself, I took time to reflect on my own, similar searches and the great journey that has resulted. This trip with my friend was one of introspection and spontaneity which helped both of us to find parts of ourselves that we had grown out of touch with.

As I looked back through my life and in particular the times that I dedicated to finding myself, I began to notice a pattern or cycle of discovery. I found that these cycles coincided with the disparate nature of my journey. While I do my best to balance my life out; life seems to oppose such balance and always finds a new way to throw me off and force my self-discovery anew. I have gone through many of these episodes throughout my life (and I think we all do): as a child, as a teenager and as a young adult. While each of these moments brought painful realizations, they also brought with them a new perspective that afforded me a grander view of my own existence.

I think that the pain that drives the introspection comes because my then current frame of reference was breaking down. The realities that I had been living with no longer fit well with the experiences I was having. Ideally one would simply adjust their reality thus allowing them to adapt to the changing truths they are experiencing, but sometime we are too stubborn to accept the changes and other times we simply choose to not to recognize what is before us.

The pressure of continued exposure to the harsh clash between our reality and our perception erodes the integrity of our life, we are forced to choose to either rebuild our perceptions to better accommodate our reality or change our life to better accommodate our perception. For if we choose to do neither then the pressure will eventually destroy our life as we know it and force the change to occur. I call these moments a “life crisis”.

During a life crisis, such as the young man experienced, we must begin to question everything that before that moment had been assumed true. Suddenly, everything is dubious until proven otherwise including and especially our own personal mantras that we had so carefully and painstakingly developed since our last life crisis to reassure us that are perceptions were as true to our life as can be and that our life was as true to reality as was desirable.

This questioning is part of, and indeed critical to, the process of self-discovery because our perceptions and realities have grown too far out of sync with each other and the resulting discrepancies have grown so disparate that our life can no longer accommodate the two. This means that they must then be reconciled and rebuilt in order to allow life to continue in any form beyond the broken and shattered state it is currently in.

Through the process of careful analysis we must identify the weaknesses of our previous framework that had been born of experience and had served us so well in order that we might build a new framework that can account for the new experiences our current reality is providing to us and build new perceptions that will allow us to interpret these realities without becoming so overwhelmed by the reconciliatory processing needed to otherwise justify our current framework that is built upon our pool of past experiences against that new experiences that we can no longer live life and compensate for reality.

This means that the process of self-discovery—or rediscovery as the case may be—is less of a matter of distracting ourselves from reality and more of a matter of relearning reality in a liberated manner that allows us to build a new perceptional framework that we can use in the future. We must rebuild our old ways into new ones; we must relegate our old mantras to the past and create new ones; we must let go of our old life and begin anew.

Perhaps the hardest part of this process for me personally is not the actual rebuilding but rather the process of recognizing and accepting that the framework that I carefully built upon year after year—the framework that I cared for, tended, mended and loved for so long—is no longer valid and thus needs to be retired with little recognition of the effort put into the framing. This conflict within me results in a period of self-denial in which I refuse to accept that my reality and perceptions are in conflict until the crisis is in full bloom and prevention is too late.

During this period of defiance, I often find that the best way to defying the need to change out my framework is to simply deny that there is any conflict at all. Though not effective in the long term, denial of the current situation is a great short term solution. I find that I am not alone in such denial. Generally, we would rather deny than accept and this is perhaps the greatest flaw in our attempts to prevent the crisis from occurring. Such denial may even accelerate and enlarge the process. Perhaps, instead of denying anything is out of harmony, if we were to embrace that truth we could begin converting out old framework over to a new, workable frame that would allow us to preserve much of what we care most about and continue operating without shutting everything down and rebuilding from scratch.

(I suggest this because much of the underlying issue of a life crisis seems to stem from current experiences that outstrip our current experiential pool while they occur so frequently that they outpace our ability to adapt to them. The simultaneous outstripping and outpacing overloads our cognitive processing capabilities which then causes us to turn off our emotional processor for a cool down time and then slowly rebuild our cognitive processing until we are again at full capacity, and perhaps even at a higher capacity, and are again able to handle the new experiences without being overwhelmed. The realization that our experiences are outstripping and outpacing what we were equipped to handle is never a comfortable realization—knowing that you are unable to process a current experience because you have built, for whatever reason, an inadequate frame of reference is tantamount to a slap on the face by life itself, something that with each increasing year we are supposed to be more adept at preventing—such a realization is ever humbling and can start us on the path of expanding our individual capabilities that will afford us greater processing capacity in the future.)

Our strong desire to maintain our current framework may well be motivated out of fear. The entire experience may be so incredibly frightening because it is so rare and infrequent in our lives that we experience, in short succession, several experience of such substance (or a singular experience of massive intensity) that we cannot process them which results in feelings of vast helplessness. If so, it is in those very moments of feeling helpless that we must learn to discard our careful planning, put aside our personal desires and suspend our current believe system so that life itself can rewrite our course and redefine what we have known, or what we thought we have known, into a new reality, often a reality more in alignment with the overall scheme of the universe.

In these moments we find that we can do nothing to adjust or alter what is happening. The time for our changing and altering, putting in our orders for future changes has come and gone and like the enormous stirrings within the granite earth, these changes are the culmination of all that we have done since the last great change. The changes have already happened; they just have not manifested themselves until this one moment.

16 September 2011

Those One Moments...

Those one moments, the quiet contemplative ones where you are half in and half out of a trance.

Those one moments where your mind is just relaxing, not sleeping but not driven to thought.

Those one moments where you are so free that you can easily drift from deep profound thought to a light, frothy remembrance of the day's activities.

Those one moments where you want to cry but are not sure if it is out of joy or sorrow.

Those one moments where you want to laugh but are not sure if it is out of humor or horror.

Those one moments where you want to sing but are not sure if out of comfort and nervousness.

Those one moments where you realize you are loved by God, your mother and a stranger that will someday become a good friend.

Those one moments when you begin to realize that you are amazing as you and that as you, you do good, all without the glue of your ego to hold it all together.

Those where moments when you begin to realize that the things you worry about are trivial compared to the things you take for granted.

Those one moments when you feel yourself waking up from the dream of your life and wondering if you should go back to sleep.

Those one moments that are between the refreshing excitement of life and the quiet moments.

Those one moments that are spent with the people you love while remembering the fun times together.

Those one moments...

30 August 2011

The Beauty of a Coded Revolving Door

I have been struggling with a programming problem for a couple of years that I found nearly impossible to solve. (I finally solved it just last week, but that is the point of this posting.) The problem was so overwhelming, and my desire to solve it so strong, that I would ask almost everyone that I had known for a while about it. I had asked programmers, biologists, geologists, physicists and just about everyone else I could think of (except artists and musicians who generally turn their noses up and programming related things). Though I would try to translate the problem into their respective field, they all got the same basic problem.

My primary purpose in asking so many people from so many different backgrounds was in hopes that one of them would spark some idea of a solution that I could run with. To my disappointment, none could offer any real help with the issue. Though, one programmer suggested using an array to store the variables which is eventually what I did and many added to the solution, none offered the big solution that I was hoping for. In the end, I should have expected that the solution would come from dozens of little nuggets instead of a giant lump.

The problem goes like this: There are eight basic virtues. I wish to determine a person's ultimate virtue, the one that overrides all others, partly because it is fun and partly because it can tell a lot about that person's perspective and thus why they do what they do.

The best way I know to determine the overriding virtue is to compare the each virtue against each other (a or b) instead of a ranking or other comparison. This method forces the person to decide which virtue is valued most of all in a given context. Such questioning results in a bank of 28 questions containing all the possible pairings (I did not develop the question bank; Origin Systems gets credit for that). In just seven questions, I can reduce the eight virtues down to the single most important virtue. To do this I ask a series of four randomly selected questions that compare all eight virtues, and only the eight virtues.

The first key to the problem was that there could be no overlap: each virtue is asked only once in the opening round. Asking any one virtue twice would defeat the purpose. The second key to the problem—and perhaps the more challenging—is the preference to have the first four questions randomized. If I would have forsaken the randomization then I could have solved the rest of the problem long ago; but what fun would that be? After the opening round, the virtues are then compared in a tournament style: the answers from questions one and two are compared in question five and the answers from questions three and four and compared in question six. The final question, question seven is a comparison of the answers from question five and six.

One of the primary motivators for programming this has been a desire to share the test with others. I could have simply given out the whole of 28 questions but knowing most people the sheer number and complexity of the questioning would have proved foreboding. Instead, I wanted to "hand out" a polished form of the test that could be taken as easily as shared. And, I must confess, at some point I find it difficult to flip through a list of 28 questions trying to remember which virtues have been compared and what the response were.

The solution to providing a randomized tournament questionnaire came while running. (Since my running partner decided to go home to get married, I wish them the best, I have found that I have a lot of thinking time while running and was able to bring together everyone’s input over the years.) Also a major part of the solution and jogging ideas has been my recent massive expenditure of time on learning Action Script 3 (the programming language of Adobe Flash) for another project. Everything came together and here is the final outline of the solution:
  1. All eight possible virtues are stored in an array (an array is a way to store multiple variable under a single name, like the shoe storage bins outside a play pin: one object, the shoe bin, multiple and separate slots). The array, called myVirtues, looks like this: myVirtues:Array = ["Compassion", "Honesty", "Valor", "Sacrifice", "Honor", "Justice", "Spirituality", "Humility"];
  2. The array is randomized using some quick sorting which is by no means scientific and I am sure not that good, but good enough.
  3. The brilliance that made the whole thing possible is: pop(). This attribute removes the last item from the array (i.e. takes out the last pair of shoes from the shoe bin). The removal ensures that the virtue cannot be reused and moves the marker to the next available virtue. pop() is ran again with the second virtue stored with the first one in another array called myQuiz.
  4. The second array, myQuiz, is sorted alphabetically before proceeding. This too was a stroke of brilliance inspired from by a friend teaching me calculus. Before the sorting, I was having to double all my coding related to matching myQuiz with the appropriate questions; once as a + b and again as b + a because I was not sure which order they would pop out in. By sorting them before the comparison I do not need to worry about the order because they will always be in alphabetical order so I only needed to make sure the values myQuiz is compared against were also in alphabetical order.
  5. Once myQuiz is matched to a question number, the question is presented to the user.
  6. At this point, I have come to realize that in terms of programming Google is my best friend for learning things but biology is my best teacher for helping me find solutions. I have found inspired solutions many times by learning how living creatures have developed to overcome obstacles. In my original plan of how to handle round two of questions I was going to create a third array to store the answers in. This turned out to be unneeded by using unshift() which does the opposite of pop(): it puts something in first place in the array and pushes everything else back one (i.e. it moves all the shoes down one slot and adds a pair into the first slot). This was somehow inspired by the way the body handles stress though the actual connection between the two escapes me. This technique reduces the amount of code needed by allowing the exact same mechanism that selects the first round of questions to handle the second and all subsequent rounds without modification. The initial array becomes a revolving door for providing virtues until the array is down to its last virtue.
For me, one of the most beautiful parts of the code is the "revolving door" array  because that with a single line of code the program knows when it has asked the seventh question: if(myVirtues.length > 1). The program keeps asking questions until it is done. No extra coding, just plain and simple "end of line."

Thank you to everyone who has ever answered my probing questions about the way things work, without you I would never have found this solution.

27 August 2011

Teachers: You'll need it later in life

(I found this in my notes--towards the bottom of the list--next to the note Can I, May I and Can I Go to the Bathroom.)

One of my personal favorites was being told that I would need something later in life. The teacher didn't know when or how, just that I would. Now that I am later in life I look back on these statement and realized they might as well have told me that at some point I would be shot by a mobster, they just don't know when or why.

The key thing this statement communicates to children is that the all knowing teacher knows that you will need some bit of information but that the children, in their limited knowledge and understanding will need to struggle and figure out, throughout life, how to use the information. If they happen to die before figuring it all out then they will die wondering "how was I supposed to use that incredibly valuable piece of information that no one knew how I would use it?".

What is tremendously better is what my college algebra teacher was explained to me: "higher math is required not because you'll actually need it, because you won't. Higher math teaches you to think differently, that's why we learn it." Thus explanation is so much better than "because you'll need it in some indefinite time in your life for some indefinite purpose."

24 August 2011

The (unexpected) blessing of Chat

I remember back when my work first switch to our current email service, Google Apps, from the old antiquated one, a private offering. The old service provided basic email services, 100mb of space and no calendaring or document sharing support. For its time it was normal, compared to now it was dismal. As I was proposing the switch from the old service (which we paid for) to the new service (which was free at the time) I was explaining the benefits of Google Apps: Gmail was a smarter email system, shared calendaring, Docs and Spreadsheets that have only got better with time, Chat to allow instant communication, and of course, Free. I think it was the word "free" that won out in the end, but I remember that Chat was of particular concern. Mostly, the management was concerned that employees would abuse it.

Fast forward four years to yesterday: My work just announced the opening a new location. While the new store will not be open for several weeks (the actual opening date has not been announce) the announcement alone has caused a fervor of activity. There are computers to get ready, inventory to order, people to hire and plans to put down. I, being a remote worker, do not have the normal luxury of roaming in and out of offices to get the answers to questions I have about the opening. How many computer terminals do we need? Who is the store manager? What dates have been announced? How will the new store effect back end staffing? Each of these is a pressing question that needs to be answered sooner rather than later: they each effect a series of other choices that need to be made.

Features such as a live shared calendar are good to be able to track dates on a unified calendar; we are using a Google Spreadsheet to track assignments, record progress notes and completion of tasks. But it is Chat, the Google instant messaging service built into Gmail, that is proving to be most helpful with getting quick responses to simple, but important questions. The one service that we feared would be damaging is invaluable. Unlike email, Chat has a more immediate and pressing presence and allows for quicker back and forth communication and the resolution of additional questions that arise.

This instant communication is good for handling questions, but there is more to it than just question answering. Chat allows remote workers, whether it is me several hundred miles away from the company or the Customer Service Office just a few miles away from the Corporate Office, that help us feel closer together. Close enough to vent our frustrations, tell jokes and even share pictures all the while remaining productive and active in our respective offices. In some ways, I think Chat allows us the benefit of both worlds: distance brings us more productivity because it puts us closer to what each of us manages (the Customer Service people are closer to the warehouse people they work closely with, the Admin people are closer to their records, the merchandiser are closer to their catalogs and I am closer to my phone) while also allowing us to feel a sense of connectedness and camaraderie that improves moral and binds us together.

18 August 2011

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

People who have been successful through out history (at least modern history) have been so because of the enormous effort they have put into their success, so argues Gladwell. He suggests that coming from a wealthy background and being born with a high IQ can help lay a foundation for that success but notes that there are more that many people who inherited wealth squander it and that there are more geniuses who have less than noteworthy jobs than those who do. Instead, proficiency and success usually comes after about seizing an opportunity, applying about 10,000 hours of practice and recognizing your cultural legacy. As with Gladwell's other books, Outliers presents a narrative with a broad collection of story to illustrate his point.

Interesting tidbit: nineteenth century European farmers generally worked about 1200 hours a year. That is 200 more hours a year than hunter/gatherers (and I was always under the impression that we changed from hunter/gatherer to farmer because it was easier). Both of these pale in comparison to the rice farmers of the era who generally worked (and many still do) 3000 hours a year.

15 August 2011

"Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell

Most of the most important decisions we make, are made in a split second using "thin-slicing" decision making. These decisions are often made more correctly than we can manage if we put our minds to it. For example, doctors diagnosing heart attacks usually go through a long list of tests and procedures to determine if the attack is real. Doctors correctly diagnosed the heart attack 70%-90% of the time. Gladwell cites a study by Dr. Goldman who took hundreds of heart attack case studies into a computer program developed by physicists to build correlation models for particles. The result was a comparatively simple, and much less (needlessly) expensive, algorithm that allowed doctors to correctly diagnose heart attacks more than 95% of the time. Goldman's process, as is the point of the book, happens with less information, much quicker and more accurately than the traditional process.

Interesting tidbit: John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has developed a 15 minute analysis, that with a 95% accuracy, can determine if a couple will still be married in 15 years. All by "thin-slicing" the conversation.

11 August 2011

"Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

This book seeks to capture the essence of why things stick with us in society. Why is the urban legend about a man waking up in a tub of ice with his kidney removed still floating around when we cannot barely remember yesterday's news? Why is Southwest still profitable (for 30 plus consecutive years) while other airlines struggle? The brothers Heath identify many underlying reasons and write them in an easy, and fun, easy to follow narrative.

Interesting tidbit: In one study, people who thought analytically before being asked to donate to African relieve donated an average of $1.14 out of $5. People who thought emotionally before being asked to donate to African relieve donated an average of $2.38 out of $5.

Side trivia: you are 300 times more likely to be killed by a deer than a shark.

08 August 2011

"The Man Who Lied to His Laptop" by Clifford Nass

This book is an impressive collection of insights and studies gleaned by a consultant and professor over a long, long time. Most of the studies use some sort technological interaction to explore a human relational question (computers are a lot easier to control that people). For example, one studied compared how well happy or sad people worked with computers that were happy or sad (happy people prefer working with the happy computers while sad people prefer working with sad computers). Much like "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr and "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath, this books is a good read and then good again for reference because there are so many good studies presented.

Interesting tidbit: negative experiences cause "retroactive interference" to our memories; we have a hard time remembering what happened immediately before the bad experience. After the negative experience, however, our memories are increased beyond normal clarity. This is why often survivors of a bad accident cannot remember what caused it but can tell you, in great detail, everything that happened immediately after it.

05 August 2011

"Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell

As things begin building, they come to a point where a small extra effort pushes it over the brink. He uses a series of examples to show how three things come together to create a tipping point, for example: Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople. The Connectors keep in contact with a broad variety of people. They do not necessarily know much nor are they really good at convincing people to do things, but they can connect a people from very different walks of life. The Mavens stockpile information. Where the Connector works to stay in contact with people, the Mavens gather information so they can share it with other people. Salespeople do what the Mavens cannot do, convince people. When things reach the tipping point, these three types of people get together. The Connectors are able to connect a Maven (who knows stuff) with Salespeople (who can convince people to 'buy' the Mavens 'product', whatever it be) and things can take off.

Interesting tidbit: William Dawes rode on the same mission as Paul Revere, but because he was not a good Connector, Dawes was only able to arouse the two individuals he was assigned to where Revere was able to awaken the whole countryside.

Whoever was working on Australia got lazy

I was reading A Fragile Balance by Christopher Dickman and Rosemary Woodford Gany--okay, reading is a bit of a stretch... I was looking at the pictures in  A Fragile Balance and started to realize that Australia has a lot of animals that look like kangaroos. I have known for several years that Australia has kangaroos and wallaby, but never realized that they also have wallaroo, potoroo bettong, pademelon, dorcopsis and quokka all of which look like close friends of the kangaroo. It is almost as if who ever was in charge of animals in Australia got lazy just tweaked the kangaroo frame over and over again.


04 August 2011


I have been writing a lot of scripts for Google Docs at work lately, mostly because I have finally learned how to do more advanced scripting than I had done previously. The Admin office had requested a script that ran once a month, towards the end of the month, to notify them of the upcoming birthdays and insurance eligibility. The script itself was very similar to one I wrote for the Customer Service office so this one was not too hard. The bigger challenge, oddly enough, was not the script but the timer. They only wanted it ran once a month but Google only has built in timers for Minute, Hour, Day and Week. I wrote the script and puzzled over how I was going to get it  to run monthly. Then it struck me: No one cared how often the script ran as long as it only sent out emails once a month. With this in mind the solution was simple: IF(CHECK_DATE == RUN_DATE)--in other words: if today's date happens to be the 26th then run the script. I set the script to run daily and now it runs for a second to compare dates and 29 days a month (actually, 30 some months and 27 or 28 for one month depending on the year) the script does nothing. But on that one special day it works its magic.

Where was I going with this? Oh, I remember. Sometimes I get so focused on the vision of how I think things should work that I forget that the how (in most cases) is far less important than the accomplished end goal. In Malcolm Gladwell's Blink he talks about how the military used to write incredibly articulated orders that were intended to cover every action to be taken by the soldiers. They found that these orders were nearly useless once the fighting started. The military phased out these verbose orders and replaced them with what they call the "Command Intent" (CI). The CI tells every level of the command structure, in short concise language, the single most important goal. Note that the CI is ONE goal, not several goals. This is because as soon as you start interlacing various objectives you water down the entire purpose of the CI: your soldiers no longer have a singular focus. Coupled with the CI there may be additional orders that clarify and flesh out the CI with additional goals and preferred outcomes but the CI removes all ambiguity as to what success looks like. Something like:
Command Intent: Build a bridge to move tanks across the river.
Additional Information: We would prefer that the bridge be a far north as possible and in a location that will allow for quick access to roads on both the east and the west sides while providing a strong defense position.
Note how the preferences do not cloud the CI (by the way, I made up those commands just as an example, Gladwell includes better examples in his book). The CI tells us that the commanders will be happy if there is a bridge that support tanks. They would be elated if the other conditions were also met, but they will be happy with the bridge. The magic of this type of ordering is that the soldiers who are actually running the bridging equipment and playing in the forests with the enemy can work out where the most effective position will be instead of a commander in a distant office. In the end, the commander really does not care where the bridge is as long as he can get his tanks across. Another advantage is that everyone knows what the overall objective is and if the see one group struggling, they can quickly step in and assist. Before it was "our orders are to stay here and guard nothingness" and now it is "we need to get the bridge built, what can we do to help". This creates a more efficient use of resources, one that can quickly adapt to environmental changes (like ants in an ant nest as in
Quorum Sensing (or Natural Leadership Vetting).

In the context of this script, I was too focused on the mechanics of running a script monthly instead of the Command Intent of monthly emails. After realizing that the intent was to get monthly emails and that it did not matter how often the script ran, the needed course of action seemed obvious.

Sometimes express direction is needed, and indeed critical, but I am finding it more often that such directions only cloud the judgement and creativity of the individuals by forcing them to do it my way instead of allowing them to learn and grow by doing it there way.

03 August 2011

"The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr

A thorough examination of the topic: "What is the Internet doing to our brains?" Carr pulls together a broad range of experiences, reports and research studies to evaluate, though not necessarily draw conclusions, of how our use of computers, and particularly our use of the internet, is literally reshaping our brains. There is a lot of good material in this book, including some ideas on how to enhance your brain.

Interesting tidbit: when reading off of a paper, our eyes are drawn line by line, row to row in a zig-zag fashion (left to right, top to bottom). When reading off an electronic display (e.g. computer, phone, tablet, etc.) our eyes are drawn across the first line of the page, down the left side until the half way point, across the half way point and then down the left side to the bottom of the page (in an "F" shaped pattern). This means, as proved in numerous studies, that students learn and retain more from an actual book than from electronic books. Which is almost ironic to consider how hard schools are pushing ebooks on their students that will inherently result in slower, more difficult learning.
(Note: these patterns are for the Latin based world, that is English, French, German, etc. Arabic and other language bases have their own distinct patterns that the eyes follow.)

02 August 2011

Reading sadness

I have been reading a lot lately. It just struck me this morning that in several weeks I will be back in school and having to read a bunch of boring books. It makes me a little sad to think that I will have to put down the interesting stuff for the boring stuff all because some teacher says so. It is a little sad, but I suppose that is part of life. There is always a time to put aside our learning, pick up our tools and prove our knowledge.

30 July 2011

"The Hedgehog, The Fox and the Magister's Pox" by Stephen Jay Gould

Gould discusses how the conflicts between science and the humanities (religion) are fabricated to put an illogical conflict that should not exist and only drags down both. Instead, science and the humanities should learn to work together. The humanities pride themselves on having one single tactic that works (the method of the hedgehog) while the sciences pride themselves on having a variety of tactics that work (the method of the fox) and that both should learn from each other in order to propel their respective studies into the future. The Magister's Pox was the method of creating the conflict so that they could remain in control.

Interesting tidbit: Gould argues an unusual point for a scientist: that the perfection of the earth and the biosphere should do more to prove that there is a God than anything short of actually seeing Him. Evolution has one of two possibilities: that nature figured out how to do things be its self or that God put things into such a perfect organization and alignment that He did not need to continually intervene.

29 July 2011

"Switch" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

This one is all about fostering an environment of change. The authors compare the mind to an Elephant (our emotional side) and a Rider (our logical side) with changing being the path we are walking down. They talk about ways to motivate the Elephant (who can get through almost anything if it wants to), directing the Rider (who can make good decisions, as long as choices are clearly identified) all while making sure the desired path of change is as clear as it can be.

Interesting tidbit: the authors cite a study by physician Donald Redelmeier nad psychologist Eldar Shafir:

A doctor is reviews the medical records of a 67 year-old patient who is suffering from chronic hip pain. At this point, the man has tried every medication know and his regular doctor was forced to recommend hop replacement (a painful and, at the patient's age, a risky procedure that will entail a long recovery process). As the doctor is reviewing the medical records a new and promising drug is announced. The question is: should the doctor recommend the surgery or try the new drug. In this scenario, doctors 47% of doctors chose to try the new drug. Under a slightly different scenario, this time two drugs were introduced, only 28% of doctors opted for either drug. The authors attribute this dramatic change to the Rider being overwhelmed by the sudden additional options and so defaulted to the original choice of surgery without really considering its implications. An example of the Rider needing to have choices clearly marked.

27 July 2011

200th post!

This is my 200th post! Not a huge bunch mark, but I like to think of my previous 199 post as a (mostly) healthy contribution to society in general.

I was just going to leave this post at the above, but decided to post something a little extra:

26 July 2011

"Time, Love, Memory" by Jonathan Weiner

This book is a history of the fascinating evolution of the field of molecular biology, particularly the ground breaking work of Seymour Benzer. It was interesting to note that this field has been growing so quickly that few students in the field today have heard of Benzer or his fruit fly experiments.

Interesting tidbit: all fruit flies, and most other animals, have a built in "rest" mechanism that tries to put them to sleep in the afternoon. They think this is to encourage us to survive the afternoon heat and thus be more productive in life.

25 July 2011

Whale Study (twice)

Some time ago (last year) I did a whale study:

I planned to make a cool Escheresk graphic with it (for a wedding gift to be sure) but I stopped working on the big picture graphic before it was done (whales do not fit together as nicely as butterflies, fish or birds).

Recently, I was listening in on a phone conference for work. The meeting was quite productive, though my contribution was minimal (literally five minutes out of the hour and a half) though I did glean tidbits of important information that made listening to the call worth the time. As I was listening, I found myself bored. I grabbed some paper and made a real life origami whale study (with magnets on them so they could live on the refrigerator):

Yes, the narwhal is my own genius variation on the whale pattern. By the conclusion of the call I had made two blue whales and two narwhals. By the end of the night I had added two turtles and two walruses. Sometimes I think that I have the best job ever.

Cheap posts

Someday, I will complete a more interesting post (one of the ones that I have in draft that are waiting to be proofed, polished and published) but until then I am enjoying going through old works. There is something liberating about finally publishing something that I had written a while ago, recently rediscovered and can now publish (because, generally, these writings were written on my phone and thus had to wait until I got to a computer to be posted).

24 July 2011

Teachers: Can I Go to the Bathroom?

(I found this in my notes--towards the bottom of the list--next to the note Can I, May I)

I can appreciate the need to maintain order and control, especially when considering young, rambunctious people who, at times think that their sole purpose in life is to overthrow any resemblance of authority and to let chaos and anarchy reign. But beyond the cursory reasons to maintain, it may be more important to ensure that children are able to understand and play their role in the system than to maintain a tight level of control and dictatorial command.

Too often the rules, that to the adults who have been stuck in this and similar system for seemingly endless years seem self-evident, are not explain in a reasonable manner to the children. Instead they are simply told in a matter of fact tone of the way it is. At the young and curious state they are in, these same children are constantly seeking to understand the reason and logic that should pervade through the world they perceive but that seems so elusive. They want to know why things are they way they are, but too often those who know (especially those whose job it is to teach them) are too concerned with other--arguably less important--matters to thoroughly explain them.

It is the 'why' that so many children crave to know, because once they understand the 'why' they can begin building a framework to help them understand other components of the world without adult explanation. Failing to explain the reasoning behind seemingly arbitrary rules and instructions that must be important, is a kin to denying an opportunity for the child to gain precious insight into the inner workings of the the system they will be living in the rest of their lives.

Ironically, the adults then become frustrated that the child never seems to catch on to the concepts that are trying to be taught. This is like calling an animal stupid for getting hit when crossing the road. They are not necessarily hit because they lack intelligence, though they might be too stupid to know better, but this particular folly is the result of a lack of understanding: no one ever taught them the order of things. The defensive adult might argue that the patterns of traffic should be obvious. 'Should be obvious' to those who have the essential tools of knowledge needed to be able to decrypt the world. Without these critical tools the flow of traffic is just a jumbled mess of objects flying down the road.

What is needed is not to dismiss the reasoning of the rules under the cloak of arbitration by declaring "because I said so" (the cars do not flow in a particular pattern because someone said so); instead, time needs to be taken to help the child understand the logic (the cars flow because people decide to drive down the road, thus their pattern and speed cannot be accurately anticipated) so that they can start to identify similar reasoning in other settings (such as, some times of the day will have a busier flow because more people are coming home from work or headed to school). Though a system of active teaching to children will undoubtedly be more time consuming, children in such a system will learn later lessons quicker and more thoroughly. But then, that may lessen the control on teachers on children.

21 July 2011

"Emergence" by Steven Johnson

When you get a bunch of small and simple things together and give them simple commands, clear patterns of behavior begin to emerge. This is true for ant colonies, computer program logic and even cities full of people. We are finding more and more that we need more simple and basic programming and planning to achieve greater and more complex results.

Interesting tidbit: Queen ants do not direct the actions of the colony, in fact no ant is "in charge". Instead, each individual ant lays down and detect pheromone trails that indicate what is going on in the colony. If an ant detects too many pheromones from harvesting activities it will go check on the nursery.  If the nursery is full of "happily taken care of" pheromones then it will check on the gardens. Using this system of pheromones, the ants can quickly adapt to the changing needs of the colony. Additionally, the system is self healing because no single ants (or small collection of them) calls the shots.

18 July 2011

Chihuahua versus Elephant

I was reading some of posts and came upon It is strange when... and made a funny graphic:

Yes, that is a chihuahua trying to bite an elephant's leg. This is a prime example of failure.

It still makes me smile.

17 July 2011

Relating to Pack Rats

I wrote this back in January, shortly after my car had been wrecked and before I got another car to drive.

Recently I found myself being mildly appalled by my newly acquired pack ratish behavior. I blame this newly acquired behavior on the fact that I no longer have a car. Though I get to the store often enough, I have realized that I can't simply jump in Elazar and go. Instead, if I do run out, I must find someone who in going, or is willing to go, to get the needed items. So, rather than risk running out, I find myself purchasing resupplies long before they are needed. This made me suddenly have a level of compassion for the pack rats of the world.

16 July 2011

"And Then There Were None" by Agatha Christie

Good murder mystery. An unknown stranger gathers together ten people onto an island for a weekend getaway. One by one, each of the patrons get voted off the island through their mysterious death. The remaining patrons band together to find the killer, but fail in their attempts. In the end, we learn that each member has committed so crime that they were not successfully tried for thus justice has finally been served.

15 July 2011

Observation: Words Counts Encourage Poor Writing

As I am sitting here writing nine statements, each at least 150 words, I am thinking to myself: "man my writing is getting pretty sloppy. But then, if it is not sloppy I will not make the word count because I will have said what needs to be said and still need 50 words to meet the assignment."

This is certainly not the first time that I have done this, in fact only for one class did I still reach to meet the word count while maintaining good writing (and that was because I knew the teacher would reward me for my articulation and word count). Instead, most teachers just care about the word count, not the clear presentation of thoughts. Thus, word counts encourage me to write poorly because I will be rewarded the same either way--so I focus on things for which I am rewarded for putting more effort into.

13 July 2011

"Full House" by Stephen Jay Gould

Gould is a notable researcher in the fields of paleontology and natural history. He also has really good analogies to  describe his arguments. In Full House, Gould discusses how the human form is not evolution's ultimate goal, but that the goal of evolution is to try every possible variation at least once. He notes that if we track evolving life we see that once a new species is created, it tries a myriad of variations and then stabilizes on an average. Though his arguments sometime get repetitive, he is thorough and sure to cover as many counter arguments that he can think of.

Interesting tidbit: Bacteria, by quantity and and variations, is by far the most dominate life form on earth. Also, the horse (which is often epitomized as the finest example of evolution because of its nearly straight line succession) is actually a bad example of evolution because where the history of the horse resembles a branch most other species look like a bush (think of rodents: where there is one kind of horse, there are dozens of kinds of rodents).

12 July 2011

Why We Despise Successful Normal People

I have noticed an interesting trend in business and politics: we do not like "normal" people succeeding. Quite frequently whenever a "normal" person becomes successful, rumors begin to spread about how the said person is not truly "normal". Indeed, these rumors seem carefully designed to draw enough, even if subtle, distinction between the successful individual and the less successful "normal" population.

As observed, this behavior seems to be a coping mechanism the "normal" use in order to assure the common individual that their paltry efforts are indeed acceptable and that those who have chosen to break from the herd in order to be successful were, in fact, never really part of the herd. Instead, they were a bit like the ugly duckling: an immensely successful person who had not yet realized their potential and so was hanging out with the inferior crowd.

As comforting as such thinking might be, it is truly damaging to the "normal" and is the reason they have retained their normalcy. Instead of inspiring the individual to do and be more, the herd mentality encourages each member to hold on to their common bond by forsaking any thoughts or behaviors that would allow the individual to push beyond the implied limits of the herd and thus allow them to enter the realm of success that they, and indeed the whole herd, are ever jealous of. This pervasive thinking is mostly perpetuated by the laziest of the "normal", the ones who want the grandeur and glory but who do not want to work for it. Indeed, they think that such should be handed to them. They suppress the general population (a feat usually more consuming than actually doing the work) because they fear that if their fellow "normal" beings were to suddenly start to succeed then they would leave the "normal" herd and the lazy would be left behind all by themselves.

How sad "herd mentality" can be.

11 July 2011

"Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson

This is a very short (94 pages) and very good book. The premise is that a bunch of friends get together for a reunion and they catch up on each others lives. One of the friends launches into a parable about recognizing and accepting change. The parable is a powerful and catching one that made me stop and think, "how do I handle change?"

09 July 2011

Random Interesting Reading

I made the comment (because the conversation was about sloths) that sloth organ are upside down. Seymour (a roommate) asked if the bats were the same. I responded that I did not know so I started a search. An article called Commonsense For Bats came up. It turned out to be very interesting reading about Human Resources in an  organization. How interesting it is that I can be looking for one think and find something else of equal interest but in an entirely different vein.

(Also, I found this interesting post by Nicholas Carr about effects of prolonged exposure to the internet of the brain.)

(Oh, the question about the bats has been entirely pushed aside by more interesting things.)

08 July 2011


I do not know that I read that many books that are incredibly interesting. Actually, even as I write that statement I think, "if a book does not capture your attention in the first ten pages then you put it down, usually forever." As I think this, such behavior would lead to the reading of mostly interesting book with few exceptions (required reading for a class being one of them). Most importantly than my reading of good books is that I tend to share enough tidbits that I learn from the said books that people keep asking for a reading list. I have wanted for some time to make such a list and then realized it would be best to craft the list in such a way that it could continue to be updated and easily accessible to the world.

With that premise, I have added a new "Reading" tag and will write brief comments about book I have read that are interesting.

27 June 2011

Document Retrieval System (More than a New Toy)

An essay for COMM 297R, 27 June 2011

Some Background Information
Five years ago, just after opening the doors to the public, our office operated just like most offices (especially for the time). As part of our provisioning, we had purchased an array of filing cabinets to suit our short term and long term document storage and retrieval needs. Within a few months of opening the store I, and others in the office staff, became weary of having to dig through those filing cabinets to find various pieces of paper that employees, vendors and customers requested. I also noted that we had purchased an All-In-One printer, fax, copier and scanner. We used all of the functions except scanning, we could not think of a use for it. Late one December evening, a use for the scanner came to mind: we could scan in all of these papers we are filing and then digitally retrieve them. This way they would never got lost, only rarely get misfiled, would be easier to store (digital files take up digital space, not filing cabinets full).

The EDNA (Electronic Document Network Access) system was launched 15 December 2005 featuring all of the documents we had filed from our store opening to date. After proving the value of the system, the company put into place a short term document storage program (in case we realized in a couple of months that we had forgotten something) and then changed our document processing procedures to include EDNA. Later, financing documents were added into the mix under the name of FINSTEEN.

Both EDNA and FINSTEEN served the company for nearly six years until there were simply too many documents (nearly 200,000 of them). Then the old search engine could not keep up and the system was put into an “ICU” until it could be revived. Though, we the completion of this project, the old EDNA Search engine was officially retired and the new DRS Search engine was put in its place.

The Project
After nearly six years of accessing documents electronically, the choice of going back to paper was not an option. The only reasonable solution was to load all the scanned file names into a database that would be capable of handling the nearly 200,000 files we currently had and tens of thousands more in the future. This would give us, in essence, what we had but in a faster, more stable platform.

In addition to indexing the document names, I also wanted to use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to enable full text search on those documents. OCR is a slowly developing, and unheralded technology that enables computers to convert scanned documents into editable text. Though OCR has limited applications, I felt that in this particular instance our clearly printed documents and standardized formats would be good candidates for the technology. Once the OCR was indexed, we would be able to more easily find lost and mislabeled documents.

Going Shopping
Knowing that it is often less expensive (and frequently better quality) to find an already developed project that we can purchase rather than develop in house, I started searching for a suitable, existing search engine. The search did not go very well. All but one of the engines I found—that would be affordable—could index the document names, but none of them would index the contents. Not indexing the documents’ contents would nullify any benefit offered by the OCR process. Though using OCR is not a critical issue, it is one that I feel will strongly benefit us in future ways that we, as yet, do not know.

The one I did find that would expose the OCR data in the search required a specialized platform and additional programming. In order to maintain simplicity, deploying a specialized platform was a detractor. I have a strong preference to fit any new search engine into our existing systems (systems that are well suited to the task), as opposed to building a specialized platform.

After a week of searching and testing a variety of search engines, I concluded that we would need to custom build our search engine in order to get the features and flexibility we wanted.

Solving the OCR Issue
The first break through in the project was finding Google’s Tesseract software. Tesseract is a free, open source, software that reads TIF files and outputs a text file. While other software could do the same thing, Tesseract was the only software (that did not cost thousands of dollars) that could do the file reading automatically from a script. Every other piece of software required user interaction, a level of overhead that would negate the benefit of the new process.

The ability to run the OCR from a script sacrificed a degree of reliability (though it is still very accurate) but allowed us to benefit from the OCR data without adding any extra labor costs. It also allowed us to keep the entire process after the manual file naming automated.

DRS Search
I found programming the actual search engine to be a fairly easy and straight forward process. I found several online tutorials that guided through the process and even taught me some interesting programming techniques to close obvious security loop holes and prevent simple data breaches. I was grateful for these tutorials because I am not versed enough in PHP to know what security vulnerabilities I have.

The entire search engine is built into a single, elegant web page that can be accessed directly or, more commonly, accessed through our company intranet site. The previous EDNA Search contained four separate files, brought together at runtime to appear as a single webpage to the end user (though search results were returned in a separate page). The new single file format made the new search engine a lot easier to code and, more importantly, to troubleshoot. For the end user, the single page also made using basic web browser functionality such as the Back and Forward buttons work as expected. This has reduced the frustration of clicking Back and losing all the previous search results.

Learning SQL
As I was developing the DRS Search page, I started by mimicking the basic functionality of the EDNA Search page. One of the key features of the old search page was selecting the type of files the user wanted to search: sales or financing. Late one night, as I was ponder the user interface—more specifically, how to cram all the options (sales/financing, filename/OCR data and filename) into the search page while keeping it clean and respectable— it struck me: sales documents are always noted by their sale order number (e.g.” 10542230_so20110623.tif”) and financing documents are always noted by the customer name (e.g. “Smith, John wf20110623.tif”). This simple difference meant that whenever a user entered a numerical search they wanted a sales document and when they entered an alphabetical search they wanted a financing document. I talked with Isabel who confirmed by understanding and I set about programming the search engine to search both the sales and the financing documents at the same time.

Initially when I set up the search database I had planned to keep the indexes of the financing documents separate from the sales documents. Though not for a particular reason, I simply thought that there might be a reason later on and that it would be much easier to combine the two database tables at a later date than to try to separate them. This caused me great frustration in trying to get the search engine to search both tables at the same time, with combined results, sorted alphabetically.

At first I thought I would just “fake” it by search the sales and then the financing. While this was easiest to do, it double the lines of code for the search and created two separate, alphabetically sorted lists that would be confusing if there happened to be search results in both tables. (The previous system would run separate search and group the results by area, so sales documents were all grouped together and financing were all grouped together under respective headings.)

Instead of giving up and taking the easy way, I decided to actually learn some SQL (the database language). The little SQL I already knew was very limited and centered around data extraction; my knowledge of the language was so limited that I would only risk changing two parts of the query, hoping I could transfer the data in Excel. I learned SQL. Not enough to be proficient at it, but enough to now understand how the queries I use actually work.

In my learning of SQL, I learned two new words: LIKE and UNION. In this particular problem, UNION was the magic word. It took the two tables, temporarily combined them and allowed a search to be run against them and for the results to be returned into a single, alphabetically sorted result. No need to fake, I learned the real deal.

Prior to my delving into SQL, I only knew the WHERE IS statement. This statement is the silver medal in search: WHERE you find something that IS equal to this thing. In order to make the OCR data useful, I needed something more powerful. To WHERE IS, the vast text collect by the OCR process would be nearly impossible to match against, thus making it useless.

WHERE LIKE changes all of that. Instead of looking for an exact match, the search is looking for a similar match. To humans, navy blue IS blue but to the computer navy blue is LIKE blue. Changing this simple word opened up the entire range of OCR data to free form search.

Giving Up
While the DRS Search page was difficult for me to program, the actual indexer proved impossible. I spent more than a week solid trying to learn, copy and mimic techniques in hopes of crafting my own piece of software that could read the contents of the OCR files and add them into the database. After a week of trying I gave up.
Daniel: Adam, I have a problem.
Adam: What is it?
Daniel: I need some PHP code that can scan a directory and put the filename and contents of each text file into a database. I have tried for more than a week to do this. I just cannot get it.
Adam: Have you tried the GetContents command?
Daniel: I just want it done. Can you do it?
Adam: Yeah, I can have it to you by tomorrow.
Daniel: You are a lifesaver. Send me the bill when it is done.
Two hours later the finished code was in my inbox and the last, and most difficult, piece of the new search engine was in my possession. I felt like a dirty politician who just gave up winning the elections the fair way, but I also felt incredibly relieved: the great burden of the programming that very complex code was done. Adam’s code provided the perfect amount of flexibility so that I could easily fit into the project.

Circular Referencing
The final challenge in the project was how to automate the process of getting the sources files from the various offsite locations, running them through the OCR, indexing them in the database, and putting them in their final resting place.

I started with existing functional infrastructure used by the EDNA system, the EDNA Trickle Transfer (ENDA TT). EDNA TT was perfect for moving the files from the remote locations to a central one, and I was able to add the code needed to automate the OCR process. This evidenced a major deficiency in the process: EDNA TT ran every hour of the hour. The time it took the OCR process to run varied from several minutes to over an hour depending on the number of files in the batch. This meant that the old timer mechanism would not work. I thought of running daily batches instead of hours batches knowing that that would guarantee sufficient time, but such would mean users would have to wait an entire work day before accessing newly added files, an unacceptable wait.

A solution came one day as my roommate was describing the how the human body can detect an imbalance and releases a hormone to trigger a cascade of hormones to bring the body back into balance. Then it struck me, I could have the OCR process trigger the indexing process once it was done, once the indexer completed it could then wait for a period of time (I chose two hours) before triggering the OCR process and completing the loop. This circular process has proven to be a perfect and reliable system for giving each process enough time to complete with overlapping.

24 June 2011

The Storyteller

This is an autobiographical essay in response to the ever so frequent question: what do you do at work?

The warehouse, plain and bland, stands just off the road like a giant fortress. Like all good fortresses, it is not the outside that attracts visitors. Rather, it is the treasure that lies inside it. Outside, the warehouse looks drab with its towering light brown walls and black trimmings, the office door doesn’t help much: “Employees Only” the small placard warns those who would open the foreboding black door.

On the other side of the door things change little. The interior walls are a lighter shade of brown, almost taupe, and while there is no decorative trim, the walls are mostly empty. In the office, the workers are chatting; sometimes on the phone, sometimes to each other. Such is the humble work place of Daniel. Although he often works from any of the company’s other four locations, this is his chosen sanctuary to work his wonders.

Although the outside is bleak, the inside office is obviously better suited to his creative thinking. The chatter of the customer service representatives provide a gentle background noise and people to occasionally socialize with and bounce ideas off of. But it is the massive twenty foot white board that makes the office ideal. “This,” Daniel says referring to the white board, “this is the only white board we have that is big enough to unload my brain onto.” Currently the white board is covered with scribbles, notes and a mass of lines and boxes. He uses the white board to stage his “stories”.

Isabel, the Customer Service Manager, refers to him as an “Information God”, a title that makes Daniel laugh—he prefers the title of “Storyteller”. Isabel tells of when he first set up the company’s Customer Service surveys. The Customer Service Office had been hoping, at best, for a spreadsheet that tallied the results and were worried mostly about the ease of gathering the data. Instead of the basic spreadsheet they requested, Daniel delivered what he calls “a beautifully matriculated masterpiece of storytelling.” The survey system provides a friendly entry system for collecting the survey information and a full set of graphs and charts to explain the results, none of which require any technical expertise. “Like any good story, the mechanics are there, but they’re hidden,” Daniel explains.

This is how most of his “stories” work: they feature quick and easy access to the data through charts, graphs, buttons to automatically retrieve up-to-date data , and “smart, dumb” text—complex formulas that output different texts based on the data in the spreadsheet so the responses look smart, but really aren’t.

The ease with which people can use his spreadsheets has made them popular in the company, but he says that people should thank his boss for that, not him. “I like a good graph or chart, but the real data is where the best stories are found,” he says, “it was my boss who insisted that I make the stories in the data easier to see.”

He sits hunched over his meticulously clean desk. The wood surface has on it a grand total of five objects: his phone and keys, lying side by side on the left side on the desk, a laptop, a second monitor and a wireless mouse. While his physical desk is nearly empty, his two screens are not. The laptop is cluttered with his email and various informational pages and the second monitor, hooked up as an extension of the laptop, is filled with a massive spreadsheet. It is this very spreadsheet that he often thinks of when people ask him if he knows Microsoft Excel. “Know it,” he says, “I live in it.”

While he might joke about his knowledge of Excel, compared to most people, he does live in it. And like a monk left to himself to delve into the depths of sacred works, he knows Excel extremely well. “I often laugh when people ask if Excel can do certain things,” he laughs at this thought. “I usually tell them, ‘just tell me what you want and I’ll make Excel do it for you’.”

This particular day he is working on one of his most complex “stories”: the company payroll. The numerous windows displayed across his screens are all critical story elements. They are part of a massive revision that he recently released. He explains that each screen has a function and purpose, and while they all together may seem overwhelming, no one else ever sees them all together.

While some might think it an incredible feat, to him it is little more than a documentary. “No one does all the work,” he explains. Some poor soul digs to find random statistics that will be quoted in the voice overs. Another poor soul does the preliminary location and people research. The lucky host goes out and shoots footage with the camera crew. Then yet another host of people come in to cut the footage together and scale the production to the correct level.

Payroll, for him, is no different. The new version—called Blackfin after ocean tuna—has simple, little spreadsheets and databases that different departments enter in little bits of information. At payroll time a single, bright green button, labeled “Extract All”, is pressed and through Excel’s magic all the little spreadsheets and databases are rounded up and processed to the familiar, but ever changing, story of payroll.

Later, after he is done patching the payroll file, he walks to the back of the warehouse and rummages through a mess of old parts. The parts were recently purchased as a lump-sum from a business that was closing. He’s not looking for anything in particular, but more just wants to get away. His excursions into the warehouse are usually fruitless themselves, but they allow Daniel to refocus his mind. “I never know what I’ll find back here,” he says. Moments later he coos, “Ooh, these belong in the IT room,” he says with an elevated pitch as he wraps a bundle of network cables around his neck. Obviously, he’s done this before.

Satisfied with today’s find he heads back towards the office. He doesn’t get far before he stops again, this time to pick up a rolling office chair. “The guys keep stealing chairs from the office for their lunchroom,” he explains. Instead of pushing the chair to the office, he sits in it, grabs the arm rests, carefully aims the chair and then, with cables still dangling from his neck, gives a swift kick and sends himself hurtling down the aisle between dining chairs and bedroom mirrors. The noise of the rolling chair can be heard throughout the whole warehouse, just one example of his creative eccentric nature.

Back in the office, after dropping off the cables and the chair, Daniel examines his white board. He crosses some items off the board, and then taps his marker against the board. The next item on his list is to put up a reminder about upcoming network changes. He sits back down at his desk and brings up the company intranet site; he considers the site to be one of his greatest stories. “Everyone in the company uses it every day,” he says with pride in his voice. He starts to tell the story of making the site such a success, and then pauses as he looks around the office. “I’ve never told them the secret of my success.” After a few seconds of typing, he reviews the reminder and with a satisfactory nod posts it online.

Those secrets are some of his rarest stories. In fact, he boasts, no one person has heard them all, and he intends to keep it that way. “If anyone knew that all I do every day is tell stories,” Daniel says with a smile, “well, they might find a way to live without me.” With that, he goes back to work: reviewing data, looking for connections and recording the stories he finds.

08 June 2011

Covenants, Contracts and Promises

This was a religion assignment that I did not want to do, but was finally convinced to do it.

As members of this marvelous church, we often are told, and comment, that we are “covenant making people”. I have been told this so much in my young life, that I first what a covenant was and then, if I made so many of them, where did I put them all. Only later in my life did I begin to understand what a covenant was and why they were so important to me.

I have often heard covenants described as a two-way promise or a divine contract. I would suggest a covenant is at once the same as and nothing like these concepts. While each of these concepts are helpful they are also limited based on our individual mortal experience. To any individual who was promised something they never received or who entered into a contract that was later broken—or to those who have been the one to break a promise or cancel a contract—the mortal experience pales in comparison to the divine experience of covenants.

Divine covenants do resemble promises and contracts made here on earth in that they are binding agreements entered into by two parties: God, the Father, and an individual child of His. Within these agreements, God promises us certain blessings and rewards based on certain conditions. These conditions are clearly presented, as are the blessings, so that the covenants can be made in full force with no plausible deniability.

Divine covenants are unlike promises and contracts made here on earth in that they permanently binding based upon our performance; they leave no room “wiggle room” for either party, no subject of interpretation. Either the child did or did not perform the required task, in which case God will give the promised blessing. In this respect, too, divine covenants differ from earthly ones: God fulfills His end of the promise with unfailing exactness.

There are five basic covenants we enter into with the Lord:

1. Baptism
2. Confirmation
3. Priesthood (for the brothers)
4. Endowment
5. Sealing

I wish to point out that, as with all covenants, the Sealing covenant is between an individual and God, not between two individuals.

Accompanied with each covenant is a specific ordinance. Just as any earthly contract is not considered valid until some agreed upon ritual or rite is execute, so to with divine covenants. Each ordinance contains a set of specific words and physical motions that are used to signify their performance by one in authority to act in God’s stead and the willingness and understand of the child to enter into and maintain the covenant. Once completed, these ordinances “activate” the covenant and its force in our lives.

The promised blessings are always based upon our faithfulness and worthiness. There is a separate, inclusive, worthiness standard included with each covenant. In this way, God is available to prevent those who partake in an ordinance for the wrong reasons from benefitting from the process. Personal worthiness is an important part of maintaining covenants. It is not enough to simply complete the ordinance; we must strive to maintain the purity required by God in our day-to-day lives.

Worthiness disappears as we partake in activities or lifestyles that are contrary to those outlined within the covenants we have made. For example, with the covenant of baptism we promise to care for the needy, remain chaste and to pay tithing. Failure to maintain any one of these will make us unworthy until we repent and begin doing them again. Unworthy activities do not just include failure to perform gospel tasks, but also includes participation in unworthy endeavors. These can include the places we choose to visit, the jokes we choose to repeat, the company we choose to keep, the physical actions we choose to do and even the private thoughts we choose to entertain.

It is important, if we expect to retain the blessings promised within a covenant, that we maintain our worthiness. When unworthy activities do occur in our lives, it is important to repent of them as quickly as possible in order to restore ourselves to a worthy state and reinstate our lost blessings.

Worthiness is coupled with justification, a process used to gauge the attempts of actions to remain worthy based on the covenants made, our knowledge and understanding of the gospel, and the intends of our heart. It is through justification that the mercy portion of the gospel is put into action.

A continued improvement of our covenant keeping abilities allows us to access another portion of the atonement: sanctification. Sanctification is the purifying power of the atonement working to make us better. Where justification is concerned about maximizing our blessing now by ensuring we get as many as we deserve, sanctification is concerned about maximizing our blessing is the future by ensuring that we continue to progress to our full potential.

In most cases, justification and sanctification work together to propel beyond the lowly constraints of our mortal selves by allowing us to obtain ever greater heights of spirituality and perfection. They can, however, leads to great disappointment if misunderstood. For example, to believe that upon completion of the sealing ordinance one’s exaltation has is assured could lead to a rude shock when, upon death, you are informed that your deviant, post sealing and unrepented behavior has disqualified your salvation.

While justification can often enable us to receive blessings beyond what we thought we could qualify for, my general rule is that whenever I think I am justified I have just lost the last excuse to receive the justification. Remember, the gospel plan is about becoming like God, not trying to see how much you get away with.

As we learn to better understand the role of covenants in our lives, the symbolism embedded within the ordinance we use to make those covenants, the grace we receive through justification and the purifying power of sanctification in our lives, we will be better positioned to take advantage of each and use those to progress every quicker towards our final, celestial goal.