Archive for the ‘Worth Reading’ category
Ed Finkler (@funkatron) made a post that he labelled as being about how to be a good software developer. And some of the entries on his list are pretty specific:
Be liberal in learning about new technologies and approaches. Be conservative in using them.
But most of them aren’t. And they’re great:
- Humility goes hand in hand with empathy. Be open to the possibility (likelihood, even) that you are wrong. Know that you will always be learning and improving. accept and own up to mistakes immediately.
- The less you fear being wrong, the more confident you can be. You are wrong about many things. You know very little about most things. Everyone else is exactly the same way. Embrace it. Always learn, always question, always adapt and grow.
- Understand what you do well, and what you don’t.
This made the rounds in the technology-focused sphere almost a month ago, but I just finally read it. While Frank Chimero’s beautiful visual essay is aimed at people making technology, it’s rich enough to be relevant even if you aren’t. Plus it’s so damn pretty! Plus so phrasing are just beautiful:
One of the reasons that I’m so fascinated by screens is because their story is our story. First there was darkness, and then there was light. And then we figured out how to make that light dance. Both stories are about transformations, about change. Screens have flux, and so do we.
A really interesting piece by Alexis Madrigal about the weird enmeshing of people and machines that constitutes a likely future of telemarketing.
Such conversations happen millions of times a year, but they are not what they appear. Because while a human is picking up the phone, and a human is dialing the phone, this is not, strictly speaking, a conversation between two humans.
Instead, a call-center worker in Utah or the Philippines is pressing buttons on a computer, playing through a marketing pitch without actually speaking. Some people who market these services sometimes call this “voice conversion” technology. Another company says it’s “agent-assisted automation technology.”
(via Daring Fireball)
It’s a bit of an old saw here by now, but I think there’s a lot of “science”, especially as reported to popular culture that’s utterly bogus. In the guise of helping politicians, the Nature blog has a good piece about how to be intelligently skeptical of scientific claims. This is “publication bias” looms large in my mind:
Because studies that report ‘statistically significant’ results are more likely to be written up and published, the scientific literature tends to give an exaggerated picture of the magnitude of problems or the effectiveness of solutions.
The list does go much deeper, too. Here’s a harder issue I’d nearly forgotten about (my last experience with sample size significance is nearing a decade ago):
Effect size matters. Small responses are less likely to be detected. A study with many replicates might result in a statistically significant result but have a small effect size (and so, perhaps, be unimportant). The importance of an effect size is a biological, physical or social question, and not a statistical one. In the 1990s, the editor of the US journal Epidemiology asked authors to stop using statistical significance in submitted manuscripts because authors were routinely misinterpreting the meaning of significance tests, resulting in ineffective or misguided recommendations for public-health policy.
(via The Browser)
Malcolm Gladwell seems to have ever more detractors, but his success and appeal is undeniable. I appreciated John Gray’s explanation of that appeal, most strongly manifest in his latest book:
Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity.
(via The Browser)
I think this very point is not only true of the old televisions series — which I recommend even as many of the special effects themselves are laughable and some of the science today out-of-date — but all of Carl Sagan’s work. He truly was a unique figure with unique things to say.
Whereas radio kids represent the “get practical” approach to science education and motivation, Sagan kids represent the “life, the universe and everything” strategy. Such a strategy taps into one’s “spiritual” or “religious” brain, getting at one’s romantic desire to figure out “what it all means” and “why there is anything…at all.” That’s the kind of motivation that can redirect a life into a science.
And this is what Sagan’s Cosmos had in spades.
A serious Reddit thread about how people who used to be racist had their mind changed. Interesting, powerful stuff:
I thought about how his son is going to become a lousy shit and rape white women. I started to get mad and decided to beat him up, I was going to follow him when he got off the bus.
I saw him press the button and got ready at the next stop, and just before we stopped I was about to get up and the man turned to his son and said something in a heavy accent that I will never forget in my life.
“I love you my son, be good.”
One of my harder-to-comprehend ideas that I always gets pushback when I shared is that science isn’t nearly as monolithically reliable as people like to believe. The newest study about how X or Y does or does not cause P or Q is as likely to be totally bogus as genuine and accurate. The Economist shares my thinking, and elaborates it somewhat more cogently:
A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research.
Striking photographs accompanied by an interesting story well told. Its start:
Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”
Peter Pomerantsev’s profile of Russia’s current politics and public culture is great. The details of the biggest Russian biker gang are fascinating. A subculture triply foreign to me: I’ve never had first-hand experience of syncretic mystical religions, Russia, or bike gangs. And the gang’s on Putin’s payroll:
There are five thousand of them in Russia, five thousand Beowulf-like bearded men in leathers riding Harleys. It’s Weitz who has done most to turn them from outlaws into religious patriots. For the past few years, Vladimir Putin has posed for photo-ops with them, dressed in leathers and riding a tri-bike (he can’t quite handle a two-wheeler). They defended the ‘honour of the church’ after the Pussy Riot affair, roaring in a cavalcade through Moscow bearing golden icons of Mary the Mother of Christ on the front of their Harleys. The Kremlin gives them several hundred million rubles a year and they work to inspire loyalty across the country with concerts and bike shows that fuse flying Yamahas, Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze acts, Spielberg-scale battle re-enactments, religious icons, holy ecstasies, speeches from Stalin and dancing girls (there are booths for go-go girls next to the great crosses).
The easiest way I found to get reasonable pictures of the gang was this tag archive on a blog.
Perhaps this just shows that I like Apple, but I really like John Gruber’s essay about why Clayton Christensen’s famous disruption theory seems to be sustainably inaccurate in the case of Apple.
There have been periods of low-end Clayton Christensen-style disruption — the Japanese imports in the ’70s and ’80s and corresponding collapse of Ford, GM, and Chrysler’s collective market dominance is a good example. But it is undeniably true that there is a sustainable and profitable high-end of the market, occupied by companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. Point this out and someone will inevitably argue that sure, those companies are thriving, but they all have tiny market share. But Apple is sort of like BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Lexus all rolled into one. There just aren’t that many competitors for this segment of the market in phones and tablets, and most of them aren’t very good.
Good criticism expands on and explains clearly the work it critiques. It brings a deeper understanding of the subject by virtue of contextualizing it in a world a a consumer of the work under review probably rarely notices, and may not even fully comprehend.
I’d say by that definition James Bowman’s essay on the recently concluded television series Breaking Bad is quite good criticism. I watched the show from start to finish, even when I found it’s painful plot points made me want to stop. And while at the end, I felt satisfied, I didn’t fully comprehend. Bowman’s contextualization is hugely useful in this regard:
All of us are uneasily aware that beneath the good civilizational order in which most readers of these pages and viewers of the show continue to live their lives there is a dark alternative where old rules dominate, the Enlightenment’s recurring bad dream just waiting for the opportunity to reassert itself. Ironically, it is Walt’s Enlightenment credentials as a man of science that are his entrance ticket to this new state of nature.
(via Ross Douthat)
I really enjoyed Walter Isaacson’s story of the details of Bill Gates time at Harvard. I’d known the outline for decades, but the details are interesting:
Gates’s case [before Harvard’s disciplinary committee] arose when auditors from the Defense Department decided to check the use of the PDP-10 that it was funding in Harvard’s Aiken lab. They discovered that one sophomore—W.H. Gates—was using most of the time. After much fretting, Gates prepared a paper defending himself and describing how he had created a version of BASIC using the PDP-10 as a simulator. He ended up being exonerated for his use of the machine, but he was “admonished” for allowing a non-student, Allen, to log on with his password. He accepted that minor reprimand and agreed to put his early version of the BASIC interpreter (but not the refined one he and Allen were by then working on) into the public domain.
This is a neat little historical anecdote:
On April 13, 1861, Irish immigrant and watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, working for the M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C., was repairing President Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch, when he heard of the attack. Forty-five years later, Dillon told the New York Times what he did that day.
“I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, and with a sharp instrument wrote on the metal beneath: ‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.’”
But it gets neater when you read the rest of the (quite short) story.
(via, of all things, the Mac Power Users podcast)
I worry about the cliche of calling a writer on his home-country “poetic”, but I can’t think of a better way to explain why I enjoyed this essay from Pico Iyer about his visit to Hyberbad, India’s growing technology hub:
The beauty of India, I thought, lies in how little it ever changes, deep down; it clings to the ways of a thousand years ago, and to the multifarious customs it has adopted in the centuries since, with an intimacy that many a neighbor might envy. No one in search of the old in India ever comes away disappointed.
When I came across this in the NYRB — an august politics and culture institution — I though, jellyfish!? And then I greedily thought, “This far outside the norm means this will be fantastic.” And it is. By turns amazing and terrifying, you’re almost guaranteed to learn something:
On the night of December 10, 1999, 40 million Filipinos suffered a sudden power blackout. President Joseph Estrada was unpopular, and many assumed that a coup was underway. Indeed, news reports around the world carried stories of Estrada’s fall. It was twenty-four hours before the real enemy was recognized: jellyfish. Fifty truckloads of the creatures had been sucked into the cooling system of a major coal-fired power plant, forcing an abrupt shutdown.
It’s been a while since I posted one of these. But an early answer on this on made it so I had to:
You realize that other people’s life-changing realizations can sound like so many facile calendar quotations, right? A realization is just that – something you have come to know is real, for you, because of cumulative experiences and observations in your own mind.
I have a pet theory that all the most important things are banal when spoken.
Whatever else is true, Jason Everman has had an eventful life. A member of both Nirvana and Sonic Youth, he went on to be a well-regarded US Special Forces operative. Clay Tarver tells his story so far well:
Kurt Cobain had just killed himself, and this was a story about his suicide. Next to Cobain was the band’s onetime second guitarist. A guy with long, strawberry blond curls. “Is this you?”
Everman exhaled. “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”