March 2016 Articles

This is an old bit of writing I found on my hard drive from October 2013. I think it’s still important, if not more so, today.

NPR: Your Digital Trail


Many people say “I don’t care if the NSA knows what I’m doing, I’m not doing anything wrong”. By and large those people can probably lead their daily lives and not worry a thing about it. But what happens when they do something questionable, something that gets other people interested in what they’re doing? Then their personal information, everything that’s been collected, is potentially at risk. And the minor indiscretions that they’ve had in the past — truly little things — come out because it’s all documented and archived in the cloud. Admittedly it sounds a bit conspiracy theorist, but humans don’t exist with perfect memory.

We exist in a world where people remember well what happened yesterday and last week and memory fades over time. If all of a sudden my life was in clear view forever, what would that reveal about me? Maybe the time I took an extra thirty minutes on my lunch break and made a purchase at the store. What about that stop sign I rolled through or the personal calls I take a work?

If we want to be a society that measures and records everything, we can. But human nature is to let time heal and forget. What matters about people is who they are in our minds and how we remember them. Just because someone we hold in high esteem could be exposed for minor indiscretions when we look at their entire record, should that matter? Maybe the fact that they’re not a good tipper but manage a large charity. Are there certain aspects of people’s lives that, as we would say, are really “nobody’s business”?

Having the freedom from constant surveillance — if you will — allows people to grow, to experiment and to learn. Free from consequences. There will always be consequences if you do something wrong, but many times those consequences are levied by your conscience and morals, not by other people.

If you’re ever looking for something to talk to me about — or maybe you’re looking to better understand who I am and the things I think about — here are some topics of conversation we might share.

Computers & Humans

  • How much information should a computer know about you?
  • Why would you want a computer to know intimate details of your life or understand your quirks?
  • If a computer understands “who you are” — perhaps more than a stranger on the street ordinarily would — is that information worth protecting from other computers, or other humans for that matter?
  • Does society or a community gain by knowing more about the people around them?
  • What are the best (yes, I deliberatly chose the word best) ways to communicate between people about ideas, knowledge and information?
  • Should more classes be taught online? If so, why?
  • How can we best teach other people things that we know?

Tremendous, long-form article by Charles Duhigg.

Five years ago, Google – one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity – became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ said Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, or ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ But, Dubey went on, ‘‘it turned out no one had really studied which of those were true.’’

In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative – code-named Project Aristotle – to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. Dubey, a leader of the project, gathered some of the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers. He also needed researchers. Rozovsky, by then, had decided that what she wanted to do with her life was study people’s habits and tendencies. After graduating from Yale, she was hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle.

Life is Short

Paul Graham ·

Life is short, as everyone knows. When I was a kid I used to wonder about this. Is life actually short, or are we really complaining about its finiteness? Would we be just as likely to feel life was short if we lived 10 times as long?

Since there didn’t seem any way to answer this question, I stopped wondering about it. Then I had kids. That gave me a way to answer the question, and the answer is that life actually is short.

Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.

If you just communicate your points clearly, you’ll do better than 99% of startups. Because before anyone can remember, they have to understand. Here’s how I make things easy to understand:

  • I make it legible.
  • I make it simple.
  • I make it obvious.

Here’s how to get people to not understand:

  • Making it illegible.
  • Making it complicated.
  • Making it subtle.

Might I also suggest the book “slide:ology” by Nancy Duarte

Startup Playbook

Sam Altman ·

We spend a lot of time advising startups. Though one-on-one advice will always be crucial, we thought it might help us scale Y Combinator if we could distill the most generalizable parts of this advice into a sort of playbook we could give YC and YC Fellowship companies.

Then we thought we should just give it to everyone.

This is meant for people new to the world of startups. Most of this will not be new to people who have read a lot of what YC partners have written–the goal is to get it into one place.

Another one that’s been waiting for a while to be posted

Starting in 2015, we’ve implemented a minimum vacation policy. Rather than giving no guideline on what’s a good number of days to take off, everyone now has a required minimum of 25 (paid) vacation days per year, no matter what country they live in. When people want to take time off beyond that, that’s good, and the minimum policy still allows for that. But it sets a lower barrier of days that we expect our employees to focus on their own well-being rather than work.

Y Combinator ·

Neat security startup to help other startups who are prioritizing product over security development:

Castle’s technology looks at user behavior to identify who is likely to have their account compromised. Developers simply drop in a line of code into any website or mobile app, and Castle will look for suspicious login patterns without bothering the legitimate user, nor the site administrator. Castle’s fully-automated anti-hijack engine identifies potential account compromises based on where the user logs in from and how they navigate the site.

Amazon’s CEO has driven his company to all-consuming growth (and even, believe it or not, profits). Today, though, as he deepens his involvement in his media and space ventures, Bezos is becoming a power beyond Amazon. It has forced him to become an even better leader.

Estimating Time

Randall Munroe · xkcd ·

These aren’t Randal Monroe’s name; I made them up

[Jessica] Aaaa! I’m so bad at estimating how long projects will take.
[Megan] Don’t panic — there’s a simple trick for that: Take your most realistic estimate, then double it.
[Jessica] Okay, but —-
[Megan] Now double it again. Add five minutes. Double it a third time.
[Jessica] Okay…
[Megan] 30 seconds have gone by and you’ve done nothing but double imaginary numbers! You’re making no progress and will never finish!
[Jessica] AAAAAA!
[Megan] Paaaniiiic!
[Jessica] AAAAAAA!

Awesome answer from the Chief Engineer on the Dawn mission.

Does JPL only use 3.14 for its pi calculations? Or do you use more decimals like say [361 significant figure representation of pi]…

To start, let me answer your question directly. For JPL’s highest accuracy calculations, which are for interplanetary navigation, we use 3.141592653589793. Let’s look at this a little more closely to understand why we don’t use more decimal places. I think we can even see that there are no physically realistic calculations scientists ever perform for which it is necessary to include nearly as many decimal points as you present.

Benedict Evans does a tremendous job looking forward at mobile: “Updated for spring 2016, this is a snapshot of why mobile matters, where it is and where it’s going.”

Our suppliers employ more than 1.6 million people in 20 countries. And every one of those people deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. In our tenth annual Supplier Responsibility Report, we’re sharing the latest steps we’ve taken to create fair employment and safe working conditions throughout our supply chain.

Terrific report.