Lights Out In The Tunnel

In his new book, “The Lights in the Tunnel,” Martin Ford postulates an interesting (if not novel) thought experiment: what if the Luddites were right?

I have to start by confessing: I have yet to read the book.  I have only read this review of the book.  And looking at my schedule, I may not have time to read the book.  So my comments are not directed at the book, but at the synopsis presented by the reviewer.

The premise (according to the review) is that “the Luddite Fallacy will only remain a fallacy so long as human capability exceeds technological capability” and according to the analysis of his book, once that tipping point is reached, people will be unable to find work, and without jobs or purchasing power, the economic system will collapse.

On the surface, it makes sense.  Only large corporations will be able to invest sufficient resources to fully automate hospitals with robot doctors, produce food entirely without human intervention, or run governments with robot bureaucrats.  Over time, the means of production will be controlled by a small number of people who will aggregate weath, but with no jobs, there will be nobody to purchase products.

Here’s where this thesis falls apart: in a world where all work can be best performed by machines, the cost of a product is, essentially, the cost of the energy used to power the robots that provide the service.

If energy continues to be increasingly scarce, then the cost to automate becomes high relative to the cost of human labor.  For example, people will always be cheaper than machines if oil is the only way we produce electricity and costs $500 a barrel.  So the economics remain much the same as they are now – people will be used where they are cheaper, and robots will be used where they are cheaper – and the economy will move along.

So the premise – that the Luddite tipping-point is reached once machines achieve the technical capability of humans – is incorrect.  For the tipping point to be reached, two things have to hold true:

1. Machines’ technical capability must exceed human capability (Ford’s premise), and

2. The cost to power the machines is low relative to the cost to “power” a human

But, if condition 2 hold true, then Ford’s thesis falls apart again.  Here’s how:

Let’s postulate a world in which energy is so abundant it’s practically free, perhaps by having robots that operate on internal micro nuclear reactors or robotically-built multimillion-acre solar and wind farms.  In this world, the cost to produce something by robots is, basically, free.  After all, the cost of the raw materials in your cars is negligible.  It’s the cost of transforming iron and sand and oil into steel, glass, and rubber that costs money.  And the cost to transform something (raw iron to steel) is equal to the labor cost (the workers) plus the energy cost (the energy used to fire the smelters).  In an all-automated world, the “labor” cost equals the energy cost. If energy is practically free, then the products will be practically free, too.

Viewed in this way, it’s much more a Utopian fantasy than a Luddite nightmare.

The Descobleizer: Solving the Scoble Problem on Google+

Today, Rocky Agrawal offerred an interesting article on Techcrunch, “Solving the Scoble Problem on Social Networks.”  it’s a good read.  The gist is that in certain social networks (for example, Google+) there are certain people whose presence in the stream actually ruin the value of the stream, even though their content is worth reading.

Rocky uses Robert Scoble as an example.  Robert has so many avid followers that when he posts, there is so much commentary that his posts dominate the Stream, shouting out all other commentary.  Rocky concludes that there is no choice for him other than to block Robert Scoble altogether.

As a solution, Google+ allows you to view the content from individual circles.  This feature is useful, for example, to see only the posts from your family or a specific group of friends.  But it doesn’t solve the problem of having your main Stream wrecked simply because you happen to follow Robert Scoble.

What Google+ needs is a way to filter the main Stream by excluding one or more circles.  By curating a circle of “noisy” posters, it is then possible to easly “de-noise” the stream by deselecting only those circles.  I call this solution “The Descobleizer”.


As you can see, I’ve filtered out the “noisy” elements of the stream by de-selecting my “Acquaintances” and my “Following” circles.  What’s left is a non-noisy Stream of everybody else.  This maintains the value of having a Stream as well as allowing me to still follow guys like Tom Anderson and Robert Scoble.

Google+ Android App – Getting from Good to Great

I’ve been traveling since the arrival of Google+ and therefore have been forced to use it almost exclusively from my Android phone. I’ve enjoyed the Google+ app immensely – it’s a really good app – but there are a few features that, taken together, would significantly enhance the experience of using the app.

In short, the app designers need to focus on answering this question: “what if the user has to use the Android app (virtually) exclusively?” The app works great as an add-on to the web app.  But a truly mobile user may be stuck with using the app exclusively for days if not weeks, and may bump his head on the tiny limitations of the app and give up.  These enhancements would go a long way towards solving these problems.

Ability to Parse Links into Previews

In the web app, there are four ways to enhance your post – Add Photo, Add Video, Add Link, and Add Location.  In the Android app, one of these – Add Link – is not available.  When you add a link, it just gets pasted in, and Google+ doesn’t create the nifty thumbnail / summary of the page to encourage viewers to click through.

Ability to Edit Posts and Control Sharing

In the web app, you can edit and delete posts as well as control resharing.  It is imperative that these functions be added to the Android app.

Ability to +Mention Someone Who Isn’t Already in Your Circles

When I comment on a post in the web app, the app is able to convert +mentions into hyperlinks.  in the Android app, this only works if the user is in one of your circles.  Otherwise, the app doesn’t prompt you with the correct name, nor does it create the hyperlink.  This should work the same on the web or on the phone.

Improved Notifications

I’ve found notifications on the phone to be spotty at best.  Usually it notifies me only after launching the app and reading the posts… not really a useful notification.

After using the Google+ application exclusively for a week, I feel confident that if it supported these features / functions, it would be where it really needs to be in order to keep people using Google+ when they’re away from their computer for extended periods.

Sony. Really???

Yep.  It’s happened again:

Computerworld – LulzSec, a hacking group that recently made news for hacking into PBS, claimed today that it has broken into several Sony Pictures websites and accessed unencrypted personal information on over 1 million people.

The attack?  A simple SQL injection attack.  Most web sites built since 2002 have known how to defend against SQL injections.

What’s worse?

“What’s worse is that every bit of data we took wasn’t encrypted,” the group claims. “Sony stored over 1,000,000 passwords of its customers in plaintext, which means it’s just a matter of taking it.”

Storing passwords in plaintext is simply negligent.

If customers experience identity theft as a result of this breach, you should expect a class-action lawsuit.  These aren’t secure websites breached by a sophisticated attack.  These are utterly inept programming decisions.

I have a bad, bad feeling that this is going to get a lot worse for Sony.

What’s even worse than all of this?

I own Sony stock.


Italian Home Construction

Vanessa and I had the opportunity to visit some friends who are building a new home just south of Arezzo, Italy.  The home was in a partially-completed state, which afforded a very interesting look at construction techniques.


Almost-finished home


Honeycomb brick used for inner wall structure

The first thing you notice about homes built in Italy – and across most of Europe – is that they are built almost exclusively out of concrete and / or stone and brick.  The “bricks and sticks” construction we use across the United States is practically unheard of.


Textured styrofoam used for insulation in walls and floors

The construction is very, very strong.  The home we visited was a modest, three bedroom home of perhaps 1500 sq. ft.  The walls were built of three layers: an inner structural brick honeycomb is layered with sheets of textured sytrofoam and then covered with exterior stonework.  The resulting wall is well over a foot thick: exterior stone / concrete / honeycomb brick / styrofoam / inner concrete.  As you can guess, these layers can withstand significant earthquakes and are almost impervious to heat and cold extremes.

The foundation is likewise impressive.  In the US, a typical slab foundation has footers poured around the exterior and a thin slab floor.  Here, deep and thick footers are poured underneath all of the walls, and the slab itself is about six inches.

Heating is provided with floor heaters.  The slab is covered with textured styrofoam, onto which is laid heat transferring tubing.  This is then covered with a thin layer of self-leveling concrete.  The insulated concrete layer holds heat well and keeps the interior isolated from the cold foundation.


Floor heat distribution system. Each valve controls heat to a different zone. The tubes for each zone aren't installed yet.

Each room is a separate zone, so it is very simple to heat some areas of the home and not others.  This is a very efficient design. The multi-zone distribution system with its independent thermostats and valves is a work of art in itself.

We have a floor heating system in the home where we are staying and it is interesting how well it works.  Since the building itself radiates heat across the entire floor, it is virtually draftless, and you feel very comfortable even though the room itself is much cooler than would feel comfortable with a furnace.  The home is a rambling restored farmhouse, but due to the multi-zone heating system, we only bother to heat the bedroom, since we aren’t at home much.  This would be impossible to pull off efficiently using American style furnaces.  My sinuses are also really happy with this approach.


Master plumbing distribution center.

Furnaces and boilers are practically unheard of.  Here, homes are outfitted with powerful, efficient instant water heaters.  The heaters are designed to heat water for the radiators and floor heaters as well as the hot water supply for the home.  Unlike models I’ve used in America, these suckers pump out a lot of heat.

Since the home is very dependent on a lot of water tubing, and since this tubing is built into foot-thick walls and foundations, plumbing is taken quite seriously.  Instead of the haphazard approach taken in American construction where water supply is run rather ad-hoc, in Italy the water is brought to a central utility room where each zone has independent cutoffs.  As you can see from the photos, the tubing is substantial and built to last.  It needs to be – any leak is a major headache.


Typical beam-and-tile construction. Layers of tile and insulation keep the ceiling cool. No attics needed.

Roofs here are almost universally made of Italian tile.  It’s a shame we can’t use tile in Texas any longer – ever since the Mayfest storm of 1995, tile is a thing of the past.  The layers of tile, styrofoam, and more tile create a well-insulated roof that doesn’t produce radiant heat like asphalt shingles.

Windows, as in the States, are double-paned “Low-E” design.  Unlike in the States, however, almost all Italian windows can be easily opened and are installed with shutters.  The combination of open windows and shutters to block the hot sun helps to keep the heat out while still providing a breeze.


Preinstalled solar and A/C hookups.

Most Italians don’t bother with air conditioning.  Summers are hot – about as hot as in Texas – but with such energy efficient homes, a reasonable set of fans can keep you comfortable on all but the hottest of days.  Homes, however, are often plumbed for air conditioning with coolant tubing pre-installed.  This makes it easy to decide after you’ve lived in the space for a season or two exactly how much air conditioning you want and in which rooms.

Likewise, all homes are required to have preinstalled hookups for solar panels.  You see a lot of solar going on here.  The farmhouse where Vanessa and I are staying features an array of 40 panels producing quite a lot of power.


Electrical utility, wired for everything currently imaginable.

Since the home is hard to modify once it’s built, Italians have a strong incentive to go out of their way to use good materials and put a lot of thought into planning.  Electrical utilities along with phone, cable, fiber, alarm wiring, etc. are all carefully planned and brought into a central utility room.  We do the same in the States, except that here, you’ll see a lot of wiring pulled for appliances that don’t exist, “just in case.”

Italy is a nation that learned lessons about “building to last” a thousand years ago.  All over the country you find homes, churches, and entire towns that are well over five hundred years old and still in perfectly usable condition.  It’s no surprise, then, that while we build homes and neighborhoods that last fifty to a hundred years, the Italians are still building homes and neighborhoods that can last five hundred or even a thousand years.

It is a set of lessons we would do well to learn.

Jupiter Journey


Once upon a time a Jupiter Jumper came to Earth.  The Jumper asked me to come to Jupiter.

He said, “Would you like to come to Jupiter?” then said, “Of course you would.  It’s only a matter of two blocks, Mars Street and Jupiter Street.”

“And that’s only 6,000,000,000 miles,” he continued.  “You travel only on Halley’s Comet Bus, and Falling Star Airlines!”

I said, “Okay!” and the Jumper beeped with joy.

At the Comet bus station I said, “Two tickets to Mars.”

At Mars I said, “Two round tickets to Jupiter.”

At Jupiter I asked, “Where are we?”

No responce [sic]!  I looked back.  He wasn’t there!

Also Jupiter

I rented a Braniff Flying Saucer and set the dial on “Earth.” I went between Venus and Mars.  No Earth!  The Jupiter Jumper was about 100 miles away.  He destroyed Earth!

I shot a missile at him from the Flying Saucer.  It hit him and he fell into the Sun and got burned up.

The Earth came back together and the dead and injured people, animals, fish, and birds came back to life.

Next time I take a trip I’ll go to Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, or Venus.

Rip R.
3rd Grade

Lookout Mobile Security

Lookout is a nifty utility that performs a few useful functions on your Blackberry, Windows Mobile, or Android phone – virus detection, backup, and location.

I’m not that interested in virus detection: since I don’t install non-Market apps, it’s very unlikely that I would pick one up – and so far there have been no real virus outbreaks on Android anyway.  Likewise, backup isn’t all that useful to me, either, since pretty much everything on the phone that I care about is already backed up with Google.

But the location service is something that might come in very handy someday.  In less than a minute on the web site, Lookout had located my phone with frightening accuracy.

When it says “zero meters” it isn’t kidding, either.  Lookout located not only the correct room in my house, but also pinpointed the side of the room where my phone was sitting.

The other location feature that promises to be useful is the “Scream” function.  If you misplace your phone in the house, you can usually call it, and when it rings, find it.  However, if I’m alone, I’m screwed, because I don’t have another phone from which to call my cell phone.  And if the phone is muted then calling it won’t work. But Lookout’s “Scream” works even if the phone is muted, and it’s pretty loud, too (it maxes out your phones volume).  You will, however, want to keep your Lookout account private.  Otherwise, your roommate might be tempted to make your phone start screaming while you’re out on opening night of La Boheme.

Samsung Fascinate: Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom!

Here is what happens when some corporate mooks take a perfectly amazing product and intentionally fuck it up.

The phone is awesome.  4″ AMOLED screen.  Excellent camera.  Terrific battery life.  Verizon network.  1 GHz processor.  Android.  If you stop there, you might have the best phone ever.

Now enter the mooks.

Apparently, someone at Microsoft bought a Verizon exec a fat line of coke and a $50 blow job at the Cabaret Royale.  Bing search is so cooked into this phone that you cannot even CHANGE to Google – for everything (search, maps, nav, everything).  Verizon has actually gone out of its way to fucking HIDE the Google Search widget from the Android Market.  Hello?  This is Android.  From Google.  And.  I.  Can’t.  Fucking.  Use.  Fucking.  Google.


Attention Ivan Seidenberg: identify the mook in charge of this decision, and immediately sell him to AT&T.  They’ll love that dickhead over there.

And, Ivan, if you happen to be the mook who made that decision, I have a recommendation.  Over the next few weeks, a few hundred thousand of these phones are going to be returned because they don’t offer Google search.  Take each and every one of them and… yeah, you know what to do with them.

Here’s how awesome the phone is: I am considering keeping it and hacking Bing out of it.  It’s really a terrific phone.  Verizon, please, please, please, please, please, please undo this decision with all possible speed.


HTC EVO Summary

Owning the HTC EVO is like owning a Ferrari with a one-gallon gas tank in a land of dirt roads.

This phone is awesome: Front and rear cameras.  The best camera on a phone, ever.  An amazing display.  1GHz processor.  4G.  Hotspot.  Sexy UI.  Swype (beta).  It’s sleek, beautiful, powerful, and fun.  Like a Ferrari.

Here’s the one-gallon gas tank: battery life is about 4 hours, when I use it like I use my Droid (whose battery has only gone empty on me once or twice in the year I’ve owned it).  It’s epically FAIL.  Just doing basic stuff on it can drain the battery by 50% in an hour.

Here’s the dirt roads: Sprint’s network blows.  I’ve been on Verizon for five years now, having switched from Nextel, AT&T and Sprint.  So, sure, I’m spoiled.  But Sprint’s network is just lousy.  Even when I get 100% signal strength, over 1/2 the time, the data network is dead.  I’ve used the 4G bandwidth some, and occasionally, it’s faster IRL than Verizon’s 3G, but usually, it’s a lot slower.  It doesn’t matter if the underlying network is capable of 6 Mbps if it is only 10% available.

So the EVO is going back.  What a terrible pity.  I will definitely miss it.  But I need a phone I can really use, and I cannot use the EVO.

Not Moleskine. Ecosystem.

I’m a big Moleskine fan.  Besides their awesome notebooks, their small planner worked wonders on my ability to keep my poop in a group.

Today I discovered Ecosystem.  It’s like someone took everything that was great about Moleskine, and made it with a better cover, brighter, heavier paper, and clearer print.  Then they decided to make it out of 100% recycled materials right here in the good old USA.

If you like Moleskines like I do, then check out Ecosystem.  They rock.

Relative Probability and Imperfect Information

There’s a fascinating discussion taking place right now over at Marginal Revolution (and on the WSJ blog) centered around a probability problem I call the “2 daughters” problem posed by Leonard Mlodinow in his book “The Drunkard’s Walk.”  I’ve quoted Alex Tabarrok’s summary of the problem here:

Suppose that a family has two children.  What is the probability that both are girls?  Ok, easy.  Probability of a girl is one half, probabilities are independent thus probability of two girls is 1/2*1/2=1/4.

Now what is the probability of having two girls if at least one of the children is a girl?  A little bit harder.  Temptation is to say that if one is a girl the probability of the other being a girl is 1/2 so the answer is 1/2.  That’s wrong because you are not told which of the two children is a girl and that makes a difference.  Better approach is to note that without any additional information there are four possibilities of equal likelihood for the sex of two children (B,B), (G,B), (B,G), (G,G).  If we know that at least one is a girl we can remove (B,B) so three equally likely possibilities, (G,B), (B,G), (G,G), remain and of these 1 has two girls so the answer is 1/3.

Ok, now here is the stumper.  What is the probability of a family having two girls if one of the children is a girl named Florida?

You’ll want to have a look at the discussion over at Marginal Revolution (answers at WSJ), because there’s a lot of interesting and informed opinion being shared.  Then I’ll share an even more bizarre example.

Relative Probability in Bizarro-World

I’m going to restate this as a coin-toss, because it makes it easier to create my more-bizarre example.  I have taken care to ensure, as best I can tell, that my restatement is isomorphic to the original set of questions.  I will present three cases which are isomorphic to parts 1-3 of the “2 daughters” problem, and add a fourth.

Two coins are flipped on a table, at which are four people.

Person A is blind and deaf: he knows there are two coins, but he can’t see either coin or hear comments made by others
Person B is blind: he can’t see the coins, but can hear what others say about them
Person C can see only one of the coins
Person D can see both coins

Now C, who can see one coin, says truthfully of the coin he can see, “one coin is a head.”

QUESTION: What is the probability that both coins are heads?

ANSWER: From which perspective?

Not being privy to this comment from C, the blind and deaf A still only knows that there are two coins on the table.  From his perspective, the probability is 1/4 (the isomorph to pt. 1 of the “2 daughters” problem)

B, who is blind, now knows that at least one coin is a head.  From B’s POV, the odds both coins are heads is 1/3 (the isomorph of pt. 2 of the “2 daughters” problem).  From our point of view as readers, this is also the probability we observe.

C can see the one head, and knows that the other coin must be either a head or a tail.  From C’s POV, the odds both coins are heads is 1/2 (the isomorph to pt. 3 of the “2 daughters” problem, though Mlodinow states his solution differently).

D knows the value of both coins. From D’s POV, there is certainty: he knows they are either both heads or one head / one tail.  However, we (on the outside of the problem) cannot say at all what the probability is from D’s POV: it’s either 1 or 0, we can’t know which.  It’s undefinable.

Person A Person B Person C Person D
A has no information to help rule out any possibilities B can only rule out the possibility that both coins are tails C can rule out the possibility that the coin he sees is a tail D knows the outcome with certainty, but we don’t
25% 33% 50% Undefinable

Four people.  Two coins.  Three probabilities.  One anomaly.

Which is the right answer?  What is the probability that both coins are heads? The answer: it depends on the quality of the information you possess.

The Question

This example fairly clearly illustrates the impact of imperfect information.  Let’s tease this apart a little further.

B has only the same information we were given in pt. 2 of the “2 daughters” problem: he knows that one of the coins is a head, but not which one.  So he can only rule out the 1-in-4 chance that they’re both tails.  There’s still the possibility that they are HT, TH, or TT.  Since we readers only have the same information as B, we will have to draw the same conclusion: there is a 1-in-3 probability that both coins are heads.

But wait a second.

Why can’t B can assume that C can see one coin, since he clearly has some information about at least one of the coins.  So he will be aware that from where C sits, there is a 50% chance that the other coin is a head.

Why would B rest on his assessment that there is a 1-in-3 chance that there are two heads, when he knows full well that C’s assessment is 50%?  B can simply place himself in C’s perspective, and arrive at a 50% probability, even though the only information he has been given is that one coin is a head.  Likewise, we as readers can also adopt C’s POV, and arrive at 50%.

Original: Revised:
33% 50%

The solution is this: if you know that the information you received came from direct observation of one of the individual coins, then you can take this step and arrive at a 1-in-2 chance.  If you don’t know how the information was derived, then you are stuck with the original 1-in-3 probability.

I found these problems so mentally tortuous that I ended up writing a computer simulation just to satisfy my intuition.  It isn’t that the problems are so very complex; on the contrary, it is their seeming simplicity that makes their counter-intuitiveness so perplexing.


I need an aspirin.

6 More Words to Avoid on your Resume

TechRepublic has a cute article listing 19 words that you should avoid using in your resume.  If you need this sort of advice, then it’s a good read.

However, I think they missed a few:

Microwaveable: your skills in reheating leftovers are probably not going to get you the job, unless you are, in fact, applying for a job as a microwave oven operator.

Lesion: nobody wants to see your scab, and, regardless of the macho factor, your wounds will not earn you enough pity to get the job.

Spandex: I’m sure you look great in your Speedo.  Don’t bring it to the office.

Nubby: nobody even knows what this means, so why bother?

Lotus Notes: two words that guarantee you will be summarily passed over for any job, probably including Lotus Notes Developer and Lotus Notes Administrator.  It doesn’t matter if you used Lotus Notes to cure cancer, the world has determined that it sucks, and has moved on.  Let go.