Saturday, January 31, 2009

Black swans and Google failure {Ramble}

Re-reading this article from last year in the Times (via George Dvosrky and BoingBoing) concerning Nassim Nicholas Taleb and black swans.

As I write Google seems to be going through a bit of a crisis, flagging all sites it's searches return with "this site may harm your computer" (it even spawned a Twitter hashtag #googmayharm) and redirecting you to an interstitial site:

Anyway it occurs to me that Google going bankrupt or suffering some huge failure that wipes out all the data stored in, say, blogger would be a black swan event. High impact and widely unpredicted.

This is exactly why I've taken to making local backups of my blog with this software using Blogger Backup. In the event of Google getting fubared I can be back up and running within two shakes of a Wordpress template.

I've also been doing something similar with my Delicious account, by using this website to create a local xml copy of all my Delicious bookmarks.

Incidentally Delicious is now becoming really useful: it's got to the stage (with 2096 tags and 2009 saved URLs) where it acts as a sort of private search engine of stuff I know I'll already be interested in.

But my obsession with long term data storage (and I mean for Long Now values of long term) has since been piqued by this article by Charles Stross. Stoss is talking about data formats being essentially forgotten after a few decades and data stored in those formats becoming inaccessible.

But the value of something like my Delicious xml backups may change for me because those websites might drop off the web.

So I'm currently looking for some software that will save all the pages associated with the URLs in my Delicious account as local html files.

LATER: Well Google is working properly and I found something like what I just described (a means to acquire local copies of all my Delicious sites) using the wget tool on UNIX based systems.

wget actually looks really awesome.

I know I should bite the bullet and switch to either Apple or Linux but I haven't got round to it yet, so in the meantime I'm looking for something similar to wget but for Windows...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The nolinkvisit rule of worthwhile Internet stuff

Like all denizens of the Interwubz I have, over the course of several years, collected records of everything I've read, touched, looked at, linked to, discussed, commented on, or visited - the sticky trail of webby spoor that will undoubtedly follow me for the rest of my life.

I back up bookmarks at Delicious, Google bookmarks, and locally, both in my browser and in big HTML gloms in my weekly monthly backups.

The other day when I did this I realised that the blog of Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod was not included in any of my bookmarks! I realised that over the years I've been reading his excellent weblog I've simply got into the habit of (I've never liked RSS aggregators - I've tried FeedDemon but found it deeply unsatisying somehow) clicking through when I visited Charles Stross' similarly excellent weblog.

It occurs to me that this behaviour can act as a kind of litmus test for genuinely excellent online stuff.

If you care enough about something to remember it without creating a link on your desktop or browser then it's almost certainly worthwhile.

Called it the nolinkvisit rule.

Charles Stross and politics

Crooked Timber have been doing a big Charles Strossian seminar, featuring Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman and fellow Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod:

Shamefully, I have yet to read Saturn's Children, Halting State, and I'm only one book into the Merchant Princes series - all books the victim of a moratorium on book-purchases until I manage to cut down on my book hoarding.

Nevertheless I still read Stross' excellent weblog (it passes the nolinkvisit rule of worthwhile Internet stuff) and I've always been struck by his yen for taking ideas that I find difficult to articulate in the most basic terms and expressing them concisely and wittily.

And so, in the Wildean sense that most people's opinions are actually the opinions of others, this is what I've been struggling to articulate to myself about the current state of politics in the EU:

Old certainties have been eroding: family, religion, gender roles, race, the hopelessly compromised multinational news media, politicians mired in the megaphone era and trying to grapple with ubiquitous information overload at the same time that they’ve been systematically stripped of actual power by the trade treaties of Empire. And so the existing establishment figures shout louder to drown out the noise, and foment moral panics and pass increasingly draconian laws just to be seen to be Doing Something. And something is done: anti-terrorism laws are applied to fly-tippers, bugging facilities are used to see that parents aren’t conspiring against the interests of the state by sending their children to the wrong school, and the unforseen complications of the disconnect between authority and real power multiply exponentially.

[from this article at Crooked Timber]

Monday, January 26, 2009

On decluttering

As I mentioned in my previous post, some of the key ideas I've been exposed to over the past few months have been to do with decluttering.

Bruce Sterling's Viridian philosophy has at it's root an understanding that material possessions, beyond the tools we use every day, are essentially a tedious distraction.

As Sterling says himself:

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren't born with it. You won't be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

The bulk of the stuff around me right now consists of various kinds of data-storage. There is also a lot of junk.

There are also some tools.

Why don't I lose the junk?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a similar point concerning information: we are exposed to all sorts of information on a daily basis. But only a vanishingly small fraction is of any use to us.

The human mind being what it is additional information clouds our judgement of mundane, day-to-day matters as well as distracting us from what is truly significant (whatever that might be).

And finally Getting Things Done from David Allen. This strikes me as the ultimate in decluttering: it is the removal of all the nagging jobs and chores that we hold in our minds all the time and the placing of them elsewhere for processing.

Yet more GTD thoughts

OK, here's the thing: I've been trying to get my head round the utility of Eston Bond's Moleskine system, which he says is based partly on GTD and partly on PigPog.

Here's a brief summary of how the Moleskine thing is meant to work:

  • Odd pages are numbered
  • Pages 1 - 4 are the contents of the project pages
  • Pages 5 - 123 are the inbox
  • Pages 124 - 189 are the projects
  • Pages 190 onwards are someday

The basic idea, which is taken from the processing component of GTD, is that you take all the things you need to without distinction or prejudice and write them down in the inbox section of this notebook.

Stuff that can be done within two minutes is immediately done. No ifs, no buts, no coconuts.

Stuff that requires a large number of discrete actions to be taken ("go on holiday to France" or "get a new part-time job") automatically becomes a project.

Projects are entered in the Projects section of the notebook.

All those things which you hope one day to do maybe but aren't really likely right now go into someday.


Across each page in the inbox section the following is written:

Date | Task | Ref | Iteration | Project | Wait?

The date and task columns are fairly self-explanatory. The reference number is intended to indicate which page the task was previously entered in. The iteration is intended to indicate how many times the task has been moved forward in this manner.

If something has been upgraded to a project the project reference number is quoted in that column.

If something needs putting off for some reason then the Wait? column is marked.

My first problem is with the idea of moving tasks forward. If you're not waiting on something and not turning something into a project then why are you moving it forward?


The idea behind having a separate Projects section at the back of the notebook seems like a good idea initially: Projects need to be broken down into discrete units before they can be tackled.

But if the projects are all stuck at the back in the Projects section when do you process them?

And also: are you really going to enter discrete steps of projects in both the projects pages and in the inbox pages? Where's the utility of that?

Developing an alternative: WTD

Instead of Getting Things Done why not Write Things Down?

This works in essentially the same way except there are no iterations, references, maybes, or projects.

WTD would focus on discrete actions that need to be taken soon or at some time in the future.

The problem with WTD is it ignores the big picture: an entry like "Get a job" might remain for weeks whilst the lesser tasks that "Get a job" entails like "Write CV" and "Write covering letter" and "Buy stamps" are crossed out one by one.

In fact, this problem highlights a problem with the whole GTD philosophy as I see it: there are always some things that you need to do that you just do without needing to write them down and remember.

I will certainly do some more research into GTD (like buying the book [aha! I knew there was a catch!]), but in the meantime I'll explore my own needs a little further.

Furthering WTD: where's the utility?

Taking WTD as a starting point: what can I do to further my productivity?

Looking at the list of things I've created it strikes me that any stuff (the GTD generic term for "Things You Have to Do/Take Care Of/Deal With") can occupy any one of the following categories:

  1. Stuff I need to do (e.g. "Get a job")
  2. Stuff I don't need to do but would like to do (e.g. "Learn to program with Python")
  3. Stuff I should do but probably won't (e.g. "Organise files")
  4. Stuff I need to do and will do anyway (e.g. "Brush teeth")

As I see it the value in any productivity system lies in it's ability to encourage you to deal with all these categories of stuff.

All the extraneous stuff about references and iterations is all very well but I doubt it actually increases your productivity.

So, I'm going to dump the Moleskine in favour of a smaller and cheaper notebook (also one with diary functionality and maps and a pencil).

I'm also going to do some further research into GTD: I've only really touched the surface and I need to read the book.

I agree with this guy.

I think for my own happiness and peace of mind maintaining an elaborate system of references and iterations is less effective than having an ad-hoc scrawlbook.

And inevitably the ideas of GTD put my in mind both of Taleb's dictum to avoid information overload, and Sterling's thoughts on the Viridian design movement.

Taleb advocates information decluttering, Sterling advocates physical decluttering, and Allen advocates mental decluttering.

H. J. Blackham

An anonymous commenter has informed me that humanist thinker and writer H. J. Blackham has died this past week at the age of 105.

His book Humanism has had quite a profound effect on my life.

Beyond that I'm not really sure what to say.

GTD thoughts

Since I started using GTD it has struck me how much of what I don't do but should do isn't because I can't do it or forget to do it but rather that I am just unwilling to do it.

For example I've been half-intending to switch from my normal savings account to an ISA tax-free savings account for a while now. The reason I haven't done it is I am somewhat unwilling to put up with the £10 a month standing order.

That's it.

I have however created my own version of Eston Bond's Moleskine-based system of productivity.

So far I've written down all the things I need to do. Some clearly require more extended projects and as such have their place in the projects section.

I think I will continue using it for a while, but I will be open to on-the-fly modifications of the system (it's worth reading Bond's own method here to familiarise yourself with it).


Friday, January 23, 2009

A new peace with GTD

I have a problem.

I am currently 20 years old.

I am fortunate to be healthy, live in a Western liberal democracy, and not to have too many pressing concerns on my time.

Despite this I have a number of problems that I've been struggling to articulate for most of my life.

These problems are specified below. If you, the reader, are a prospective employer I exhort you to be aware that I am defining these problems that I might solve them and make myself a better person.

Here they are:

  1. I am passive.
  2. I will default to inaction if there is no clear alternative.
  3. My attention span is short.
  4. I am easily distracted.
  5. I have difficulty organising and optimising my life.
  6. My memory lets me down sometimes.

OK. So now they're out in the open - where do I go from here?

The answer that most readily springs to mind is to adopt the Getting Things Done lifestyle.

A discussion of GTD and it's founder, David Allen, can be found in this article on Wired Magazine.

As ever with the cultish fringe there is a suspiciously religious element to GTD that I'm, wary of. Not to mention the vast variety of tie-in products and money spinning items associated with it.

Fortunately there seem to be no end of easy, cheap implementations of the basic philosophy, including a rather splendid Moleskine-based project described in detail here.

However I have just taken the time to write down all the things I need to do. In no particular order and with no distinction made between their being big or small or important or unimportant.

This simple act has proven to be very cathartic. For the first time in a very long while (in fact, since I was on holiday in the summer) my mind seems calm and at peace.

All those nagging little tasks are still there. But now they are stored elsewhere and I can concentrate on getting things done.

I intend tomorrow to purchase a Moleskine notebook and begin living with GTD.

Watch this space.

Which programming language am I?

For years now I've been tinkering around with computer programming languages.

Back when I was thirteen I bought a copy of C for Dummies in my local Oxfam shop. I learned a little but gave up half way through.

More recently I've been reading Sams Teach Yourself Java 6 by Rogers Cadenhead and Laura Lemay. I also have an up-t0-date copy of Sams Teach Yourself C++ Liberty Jones on my desk.

Another textbook that's floating around somewhere is PHP 6 and MySQL 5 Visual Quickpro Guide by Larry Ullman.

I'm also learning Javascript for one of my OU courses at the moment.

In short I've made my usual mistake of not focusing on one language and letting myself get distracted by other projects.

The motivation behind my interest has always been my desire to more fully understand the computer I use so much.

Cory Doctorow commented, in this review of his recent book, that:

"Even if you only write code for one day, one afternoon, you have to do it. Computers can control you or they can lighten your work — if you want to be in charge of your machines, you have to learn to write code."

Which is good advice, I guess. Chris Applegate has written a brief guide as to how you might start off, and recommends Python as a good place to start:

If you work in any information industry, or are thinking about a career in it, learn to code. And by code I don’t mean learn something hardcore like Java or C++, or even learn a full programming language (as you’ll see below). But it means getting above the usual abstractions you see - your web browser, Word, Excel - and getting involved at a deeper level, get to appreciate what the data it is you’re reading and realise it’s not just something to look at.

Python (along with Perl) is one of the few languages I haven't dickered around with at some stage.

I think that the important thing is that I focus on one language at a time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Procrastination and Anticrastination

An interesting study here concerning procrastination:

The findings, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, were very clear.

Even though all of the students were being paid upon completion, those who thought about the questions abstractly were much more likely to procrastinate--and in fact some never got around to the assignment at all.

By contrast, those who were focused on the how, when and where of doing the task e-mailed their responses much sooner, suggesting that they hopped right on the assignment rather than delaying it.

The authors note that "merely thinking about the task in more concrete, specific terms makes it feel like it should be completed sooner and thus reducing procrastination."

They conclude that these results have important implications for teachers and managers who may want their students and employees starting on projects sooner. In addition, these findings are also relevant for those of us resolving to have better time management skills in the New Year!

This idea of focusing on the real and specific rather than the abstract and general is similar to the ideas of productivity guru David Allen, detailed in this profile in Wired:

Items on next-action lists should be described as concretely as possible. Breaking down stuff into physical actions, Allen says, is the key to getting things done.

I've certainly found Allen's ideas useful in getting things done. I now keep a diary and focus on doing things now rather than later.

[via Paul Raven]

Political engagement

Chastened by this post by the Yorkshire Ranter I wrote to my MP concerning Freedom of Information Order 2009, an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that would allow MPs expenses details to be kept secret. This is the content of the email I sent him:

Dear Mr Maples

I am writing concerning the Freedom of Information Order 2009 (described here:

My understanding is that this Order will use the provision in section 82 of the Freedom of Information Act to allow an exemption for MPs and Lords so that they do not have to reveal details of their personal expenditure.

This seems to be in response to the FOI request concerning MPs expenses that has been compiled and is due for release.

My objections to the Freedom of Information Order 2009 are as follows:

1) It will mean that the large quantity of public money that has been spent collecting receipts will have been wasted.

2) As the FOI request concerns how taxpayer's money has been spent (and what you and your fellow MPs spent at John Lewis can hardly be considered secret for reasons of national security) we have a right to know.

3) It implies that parliament is uniquely privileged over other public sector bodies as to how it spends money.

4) It reflects badly on the reputation of the Houses of Parliament that MPs feel it is necessary to keep their expenditure details concealed.

It is my understanding that this Order needs two parliamentary votes, one in the Commons, one in the Lords, which are scheduled for Thursday the 22nd March.

I would be very grateful if you would consider the points above and choose to vote against this Freedom of Information Order.

yours sincerely

Thomas James

And now look what has happened:

On the 16th of May 2008 the High Court ruled that MPs’ expenses must be published under the Freedom of Information Act.

Tomorrow [[[i.e. today]]], MPs were going to vote on changing the law to keep their expenses secret after all, just before publication was due and after spending nearly a million of your pounds and seven months compiling the data.

However, after a tremendous response from you, with over 7,000 members on our Facebook group, 4,000 messages sent to MPs, help from Stephen Fry, and a helpful 4th Report of the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, it appears that the vote has been cancelled – Guardian, Times, BBC.

As President Obama said in his inauguration speech: “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Huzzah! The system works.

On writing

Malcolm Gladwell writes that you require 10, 000 hours of practice to become truly skillful at something.

This highlights the problem with the nature/nature question: is performing 10, 000 hours of practice in anything the result of a biological inclination, or an accident of circumstance? Or is it a combination of both?

The areas I wish to become skillful in are the fields of writing, draftsmanship, and design. Being able to write well and knowledgeably about a wide range of subjects is a core part of this skill.

To get some perspective on my 10, 000 hours consider this: if it takes me one second to write one word (and considering the possibility of multiple drafts, research-time-per word etc this is quite likely) then I will need to write some 36, 000, 000 words to become truly proficient.

Professional writers often get this experience in journalism (as in the case of Charles Stross and Malcolm Gladwell) or just through huge amounts of practice.

So far in my life I have probably written around half a million words. This needs to end now. I need to write more and more often.

As I imagine it writing is like anything else: if you keep doing it you will eventually become proficient. If you keep the wheels spinning and well-oiled things should develop in due course.

I also need more practice at narrative-building. I need to learn how to create a plot and build characters and plug everything together.

I suspect that there are plenty of writers who don't write 36, 000, 000 words in their entire lives. Writing copy may be one of those skills that reaches a plateau of excellence before it needs to be given an additional boost by an insight into the human condition.

On a completely unrelated note it would be a good idea for me to get a new keyboard if I intend to write so much in the future. This one is really appalling.

The cause of suffering

What exactly do I want?

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of the answer to this question. It has a taste and a smell. It is emotive as only these sensations are, and as I cannot define it in words I find writing about my desires frustrating.

As ambiguous as the written word is in terms of formal logic it is still too constrictive to convey what I want.

All it can provide me with are vignettes: little scenes and doll-house models of what I desire. The following is one such scene:

We begin with the top floor of a high-ceiling converted warehouse in a dockland neighbourhood of a cosmopolitan Western city. The decor is minimal, the aesthetic oriented towards the pragmatic.

Large skylights flood the interior with light, tall pine shelves cling to the walls. The books balanced thereon are diverse in content. All are crisp and fresh of the printing press. Amongst them are reprints of classics, textbooks in diverse sciences and arts, design, cognitive psychology, economics, engineering, physics, biology, philosophy, ethics, law, craft, history, and business.

There are novels and compendium of stories and poems, again with the combination of disuse and overuse that characterises a consuming mind.

There is a tendency towards award-winners and critical acclaim amongst the volumes, as if someone had downloaded a list of everything that anyone had said was good and ordered them all in. This is a library for the reader, not the faux-intellectual, someone who wants to be exposed to ideas like a lab rat is exposed to germs.

Many of the books have been taken up and read and are left cast around the apartment, stuffed with notes and bookmarks, the dandruff of the mental dilettante.

The furniture has a utilitarian aspect to it. There is a virtually unused kitchen area and a dining area sans dining table. The core of the home seems to be a desk secreted in a shady corner: a tree sprouts screens and tablets, the roots formed with flat cables and wires trundling inward from ports in the nearby walls.

The chair in front of the desk is of a particular design, emphasising comfort and ergonomics. The keyboard is of high quality.

A few other notebook computers are scattered over the home, which is currently empty. It's occupant is out engaged in amusing and enjoyable pursuits. Not working, of course, but rather cultivating the art of life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama

The USA has a new president today.

I wish I knew enough to know what he should and shouldn’t do. The problem is I don’t.

His inaugural address was written by Jon Favreau. The guy is 27 years old.

Where will I be in seven years time? If (and it is an if) I spend the next four years at university I might be three years into my first job at 27.

One passage from Obama’s speech stands out:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.

This is a nicely inclusive. Another passage:

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

The science of listener attention indeed. Toby Ziegler would be proud.

See you later, legislature

Smaller house of parliament.

Party House:

500 seats using mixed member proportional representation.

Sometimes more due to overhang seats.

Elected in votes every four years (at predetermined times).

The 250 seats allocated to allow for proportional representation are appointed from party lists. These party lists are subject to stringent rules as to who can go on them.

Age and experience outside of politics, academia, and the media are emphasised. As such party list members must be at least 30 years old and hold a post-graduate qualification in a numerical subject.

People House:

500 seats allocated to any adult (>=18 years old) citizen on a random basis every two years. The intention is to provide a house that accurately reflects the views of normal people.

The People's house reviews legislation and can veto any bill passed to it by the Party House, if a bill is passed back in this manner then the Party House can override with a two thirds majority.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blessed are the indolent

Laziness is a virtue. Those who can be bothered to tell you otherwise are clearly lacking it.

- Emery Finkelstein

Despite my limited experience of the world there are a number of things I have discovered about large organisations:

  1. In any large organisation the amount of work to be be done will grow to consume all the time of all the people available for work.
  2. As an organisation grows in revenue the number of people working for it will increase.
  3. Activity does not equal accomplishment.

The first observation is an extension of Parkinson's Law that work expands to fill all the time available. Working for several months at a call centre has taught me that not only is this the case but that the more people there are in an organisation, the more work needs to be done, regardless of output.

The second observation is seemingly obvious: labour is a key factor of production after all, but it's importance relative to capital has shrunk over the last century.

And activity

In 1970 James Martin and others predicted that the confluence of Moore's Law and the growth of automation would result in most human toil being replaced with machine work. There were predictions that by the year 2000 a 3 1/2 day work week (4 days one week, 3 days the next) would be the norm.

And yet this has not happened.

Where did my utopia go?

Why have all the improvements in technology not lead to a consummate increase in leisure time as people have stopped working as hard as they once did and start looking to more important things?

I am developing a suspicion that a great deal of the jobs and careers of a large portion of people in the Western world are essentially useless.

A Keynesian might argue that any labour is good labour: even digging holes in the ground then filling them in counts as economic activity if the digger is paid. The digger can then spend their income buying food and services from others and thus the economy is stimulated.

But what if someone invents a digging-machine that does the work faster and for less money - what then?

Politicians (like Barack Obama) talk of "creating jobs" as if that were an end in and of itself.

This raises an interesting question: what is the ultimate end game of human civilization? Are we aiming for a society where no one has to work if they don't want to and leisure is plentiful?

Or do we want a hamster wheel society of people doing makework for no higher purposes than to stimulate the consumer economy?

Keynes had some thoughts on the endgame of human civilization [via Futurismic] in his essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Charles Stross comments on the hamster wheel aspect of this problem with reference to the job-creating system otherwise known as Microsoft Windows.

At the root of all the great engineering, technological, medical, economic, philosophical, social, and political developments of the last few centuries is the constant desire to get more for less.

Nuclear weapons and ICBMs have made all-out war between industrial nations a monstrous mistake in every context. Therefore for a relatively small amount military effort a great gain of peace is achieved.

Cars and planes make transport easy and safe; drugs and surgery and antibiotics make life longer and less painful; central heating and air conditioning allow us to control our environments and build comfortable homes for a fraction of the relative cost to our ancestors of doing the same.

And as for me I think that cultivating the art of life itself is a much higher goal than mere money-grubbing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

May Almighty illuminate our intellect and inspire us towards the righteous graph...

At the moment I'm reading The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker because Amazon kept bugging me with it every time I bought Taleb.

And those Amazon algorithms know their stuff: Beinhocker is like Taleb only more polite, less bombastic, and generally more interesting.

TOoW leaves out most of the epistemological stuff and concentrates on wealth. So far Beinhocker has gone over why neoclassical economics is nonsense (it treats the economy as a closed, non-dynamic system, which it isn't, and treats people as perfectly rational, which they aren't).

Beinhocker is working his way towards describing complex adaptive systems of the Murray Gell-Mann variety...

In the meantime he also writes about non-linear equations and deterministic chaos: like this equation here:

Bt+1 = r * Bt * ( 1 + Bt)

Where B is the value of something at time t, and r is some other number.

When r is set to 1:

Now if you set r to 2:

Now if you set r to 3.3:

Now if you set r to 4:

Which is, apparently, chaotic.

I had always thought that in mathematical terms chaos meant "randomness", but in fact the two are very separate ideas.

A system is chaotic if it:

  1. Is sensitive to initial conditions,
  2. Is topologically mixed, and
  3. Has dense periodic orbits.

Now I understand the first of those points, but not the second or third.

More reading to do methinks...

Monday, January 12, 2009


I heard, whilst watching the complete series 2 box set of The West Wing, Toby Zeigler mention something called "the science of listener attention" - I immediately googled it but could only find specific references to the episode and the script:

You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper. Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That's 'cause I'm a speechwriter and I know how to make a point. It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with "lowers" and "raises" there? It's called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites and now you end with the one that's not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And that's it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest! One world, one peace. I'm sure I've seen that on a sign somewhere.

I didn't think any more of it until I read what guestblogger Gareth L Powell was writing on Futurismic:

There are tried and tested techniques that advertisers have been using for decades – techniques that can be easily adapted to improve the response you get from your emails, subscription drives and blog posts.

The best known of these techniques is undoubtedly AIDCA. This formula is so powerful that it has remained in constant use since the 1950s, and has recently found a new lease of life with email and online marketing.

AIDCA stands for: Attention, Interest, Desire, Conviction, and Action. Over the next six days, I’ll be guiding you through each of these stages, giving you a powerful tool to use when you’re trying to elicit a response from your readership.

A coincidence, no? AIDCA sounds a lot like the written equivalent of the science of listener attention.

And further serendipity ensued with the discovery of this gem of an article by Cory Doctorow on how to write productively amidst the storm of distraction and noise that we are all constantly confronted with:

Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite."

My recent hostility towards the stormy cloud of the media was piqued by reading two excellent books by Nicholas Nassim Taleb: Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.

In both books Taleb criticises (amongst much else) the idea that people are "well informed" if they read the newspaper every morning.

Taleb describes the difference between the contents of daily newspapers and the contents of published books as akin to the difference between noise and signal.

No one can realistically know what medium-term relevance the daily churn of events will have on the markets, or the economy, or science, or technology.

Those events that are significant are so widely discussed and reported that it is practically impossible not to know that they are happening.

Which brings me back to the science of listener attention: if advertisers have such supposedly powerful techniques to get my attention how do I continue to effectively control my informational consumption? How do I robustify my memetic input? How do I screen my prospective mindmates? How do I let the good in and leave the bad on the magazine stand?

By reading more books and fewer nespapers.

[Gareth L Powell is a guestblogger on Futurismic]


In Fooled by Randomness Taleb mentions a preference for the classics, on the basis that if they've remained relevant and discussed for so long they must have value to them.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that lastingness is a guarantor of quality: but I take the basic point that if literature has survived for a long time it's worthy of respect.

{Although on a more technical point: later on in the book Taleb discusses the survivorship bias (go Google it). How does he know that the classics (i.e. ancient greek and roman literature and philosophy) are not simply prevalent because of the survivorship bias? Perhaps if the Library of Alexandria hadn't burnt down we'd consider the works in there to be of superior quality? Lasting historical relevance of books is a randomness-prone property. However I still agree with Taleb that reading about long-lasting ideas and reading older books is a workable heuristic for dealing with the "what will I read" question...}

He also mentions he reads weekly magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker on the basis that these have had enough time for news and ideas to be processed and contain potentially useful knowledge, as opposed to irrelevant data.

And yes: I am aware of the irony that I've resolved to read and write more but have also been watching The West Wing but whaddayagonnado - it has already taught me something today:

Beware of political speechwriters.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Living the good life elegantly

One of the ideas Nassim Nicholas Taleb comes back to again and again, both in The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness is that you can and should live elegantly.

Living elegantly means being stoical about loss and disaster, and not working too hard or becoming overly stressed when things don’t go your way.

It also means avoiding “noise.” In this context noise is the constant humdrum flow of news and factoids that we all expose ourselves to in this information-saturated age. Reading the paper every morning doesn’t make you any more informed than someone who spends their time reading philosophy and history textbooks.

Taleb argues that the older something is the more likely it is to be of value: things that aren’t valuable tend not to be preserved or sustained in culture. This leads to an interesting comment on religion: whyever people believe in god is beside the point, millions of people do and have believed in God for thousands of years so there must be some psychological or cultural value to it. I’m inclined to agree with this, but not with the general point that “because we’ve always done it” is a good argument in favour of anything.

My objection is to the imposition of religious cultural values on those who do not believe: particularly the recent complaint to the ASA that the atheist bus is "offensive."

Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, sez:

"There is plenty of evidence for God, from people's personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.

"But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it."

Taleb would of course point out that you can't prove a negative ("God does not exist") and I would point out that the atheist bus does not claim to: "There is probably no God."

This statement is induced partly from lack of any indication of the existence of God so far (based on repeatable experiment, rather than subjective experience) and deduced from the internal inconsistency of most conceptions of God.

In The Black Swan Taleb presents a strong finding from cognitive psychology called the information bias that shows that being exposed to information more frequently does not necessarily improve your ability to make decisions.

Taleb also argues that being presented with a constant barrage of negative news is also bad for you from the point of view of happiness.

I’d like to draw a link between what Taleb says and the ideas of the Viridian design philosophy. In Bruce Sterling’s last note he says that people should minimise the amount of badly-designed clutter in their lives so that they might be happier. In the same way Taleb is advocating a reduction in information clutter, and concentrating on quality rather than quantity of data.

Mystic double D

Reading a post on D-squared by David Davies is amazingly prophetic:

This is the doctrine of the "wealth effect", and if you can dig up a few factoids and linear regressions to illustrate it and avoid using the word "shit", you can make a quite decent living as a pundit by repeating the paragraph above. On the other hand, if you had been placing bets on a US double-dip recession so far, you'd have lost them, because Alan Greenspan and his merry gang at the Fed have a solution to this problem. Basically, the solution's pretty simple and it involves screwing interest rates down to the floor until mortgage rates follow them down to Low Low Prices levels, and pointing out to the Great American Consumer that it's "Bye-Bye, Magic Stock Market Bubble Money!" but "Hello, Magic Housing Market Bubble Money!". Marvellous.

This is pretty impressive.

Wag the blog

Since I stopped reading newspapers I have replaced much of my procrastination reading Polly Toynbee's and Janet Daley's opinions on whatever with reading some of the following sci-tech/economics/SF blogs. They are no more or less well-informed than professional newspaper columnists but considerably more amusing:

I'm pretty sure that doing this goes against the spirit of my desire to read more actual books rather than irrelevant nonsense.

{No offense is implied to any of the above: I'm just saying at this stage in my life it would probably be better to focus on the profound and important rather than the trivial and up-to-the-minute}

*Sigh* --- I should really just avoid reading blogs altogether. It isn't educational, and doesn't improve my deep knowledge about anything.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

R programming language

A new programming language, R, designed specifically for data mining and statistics is discussed in the New York Times:

“R has really become the second language for people coming out of grad school now, and there’s an amazing amount of code being written for it,” said Max Kuhn, associate director of nonclinical statistics at Pfizer. “You can look on the SAS message boards and see there is a proportional downturn in traffic.”

[via Slashdot][image from R Project Website]

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Felix Dennis

In his answer to the recent Edge Question 2009 (What will change everything?) epistemiology philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb touches on a topic close to my heart [from]:

People want advice on how to get rich –and pay for it. Now how not to go bust does not appear to be valid advice –yet given that over time only a minority of companies do not go bust, avoiding death is the best possible –and most robust --advice.

Taleb is fond of pointing out that the "how I did it" genre of business/entrepreneurship books is essentially useless as a source of business advice because all the writers (who he asserts consist entirely of successful, retired entrepreneurs) suffer from the survivorship bias - the only reason they're in a position to lecture anyone on how to succeed in business is they did not fail.

As huge numbers of business startups do fail and the defining component of success is not failing there is very little value to be gleaned from reading the memoirs of self-indulgent millionaires.

The exception is magazine entrepreneur Felix Dennis, owner of The Week and The First Post (both of which I have stopped reading on Taleb's advice).

The reason Dennis' book How to Get Rich was so disappointing to this reviewer was that the he found the book largely anecdotal [from the FT]:

...this book is not so much about how we could get rich as how Dennis did.

The author has the good taste to admit that you have to be a little lucky to get on the rich list - as well as brash and single-minded. Unfortunately, he also has enough bad taste to reprint some of his own poetry, most of which revolves around himself and his pots of money.

Dennis' poetry notwithstanding I found the book both highly general but also highlighted by a series of anecdotes that show just how lucky Dennis was.

His first big break was when he wrote an exclusive biography of a kung-fu practitioner Bruce Lee just before the star died in mysterious circumstances, resulting in a surge of public interest and demand just as Dennis published the book.

On another occasion when Dennis was flogging membership packs for the Bruce Lee fan club the packs were shown on TV by a journalist who felt they were bad value for money - as a result thousands more people bought them.

Yet another time it was discovered (as Dennis was en route to his Caribbean home of Mustique) that his publishing company was due to suffer a catastrophic cash-flow crisis. The discovery was due to a change in accounting software that highlighted the problem just in time to avert bankruptcy.

Dennis is entirely open that his success is in large part down to luck, but he also includes a very practical point: when it comes to getting rich, it's what you own that counts, not your prestige, not your job title, or personal power.

And Taleb is wrong to say that you don't get books that describe how not to start a business. Raconteur and new media whore Paul Carr does just that in his amusing and entertaining account of how he failed to become a wealthy and famous web tycoon entitled Bringing Nothing to the Party: True Confessions of a New Media Whore.

I'm gradually coming to suspect that entrepreneurship is for suckers - if you really want to become happy, it's best to get a well-paying and reliable job that you enjoy.

Or better yet, rather than be a hacker, be a backer. Taleb mentions somewhere in The Black Swan that investors in companies make more money overall than individual entrepreneurs.

This is perhaps the story to take away from The Second Bounce of the Ball by Apax founder Ronald Cohen.

"Success," like most other abstract qualities, is largely subjective. Life is for living, not ferretting around for dollars and euros. As Brian Micklethwait writes in his essay What the Success Books Say:

Success means having a success attitude. Success means thinking successfully. Success means having, or cultivating, a "positive mental attitude"

Putting aside my nerdy and maladjusted obsession with the wealthy I care more about living elegantly and happily than mere money.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Finding Wisdom in the Mass

One of the problems with writing a blog is that when you get an idea for a post, an idea which may be the result of weeks of mental incubation (a la Hermann von Helmholtz's theory of the steps of discovery or James Webb Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas), you also find yourself tasked with the tedious chore of chasing down all the links, references, quotations, blog posts, magazine articles, or books that contributed to your idea and including them in your post as well.

The problem is similar to that of information overload: with so many possible sources of information and text, how do we know what to read? And how do you know what to include in your post?

Do you really have to include references to everything and anything that might have contributed to the idea in the text?

I can't surf the web for any length of time without discovering new websites that are well worth my while reading.

So what how do I allocate my time so as to achieve maximum utility?

Friday, January 02, 2009

What I'm reading now

  • M150 Data, Computing and Information: Unit 5 Storing, getting and sending your data, OU.

  • T173 Block 3 Patents: The engineer as innovator, OU.

  • The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex by Murray Gell-Mann.

  • Sams Teach Yourself Java 6 in 21 Days by Rogers Cadenhead and Laura Lemay.

  • Economics for Dummies by Sean Masaki.

  • Four Laws That Drive the Universe by Peter Atkins.

I recently (and finally) finished reading Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers. It was referenced in The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Taleb said that Koestler highlighted how the idea that science has progressed in a straightforward fashion is wrong. Science has evolved through a series of sudden breakthroughs, and with much time wasted in intellectual dead-ends.

Taleb describes the most valuable property of the scientific method and the free market as “stochastic tinkering.” Having lots of people messing around with different ideas and business models increases your exposure to potential breakthroughs.

The idea that history is a series of clear and well defined developments inevitably leading to some outcome is a canard. History is a random and chaotic process.

Science and the free market are also random and chaotic. However it is precisely because of this randomness that science and the free market are so powerful.

Because the free market encourages new ideas and methods and allows successful ideas to achieve success at the expense of less successful ideas the ultimate outcome is a system that maximises the potential for good ideas to achieve widespread adoption.

Similarly with science. Good ideas succeed at the expense of bad ones. However in the scientific method the ideas are judged on the basis of the successful predictions they make, or the fact that they have yet to be disproved by experiment.

In the free market good ideas are judged on the basis of how profitable they are (theoretically).

Gell-Mann touches on many of the same ideas as Taleb, particularly regarding complexity and what Gell-Mann refers to as “complex adaptive systems.”