When AI Get’s Personal OR You’re Not Supposed to Talk About That!

A few months ago Microsoft released Seeing AI. This is a tool created by a blind product manager to help blind people. It’s trying to using computer vision to replace lost sight.

The most interesting piece is the person functionality. This is a fairly transparent implementation of Microsoft’s Face API. The Face API has a number characteristics that it can determine including hair color,  emotion,  glasses, facial hair, makeup, smiling, gender, and age. Computer geeks, take a look at Face API, it’s pretty awesome. Here’s an example of the person functionality from Seeing.ai showing off Face API.

It’s a great party trick to show your friends how AI can figure out all this stuff. The most interesting characteristic is age. Microsoft thinks so too and created an entire website called how-old.net.

It’s a great party trick so I started bringing it out at parties. But there was the problem. People who skewed older than they really were started saying “Hey, that’s not cool.” I started to realize that the app didn’t have a lot of tact.

It was like a little kid saying, “Mommy, that lady looks 45.”

And the woman saying back, “My Lord! Don’t you have any manners!”

This is similar to a scene in the Netflix series Atypical about Sam, a character with Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly called Aspergers Syndrome). Sam doesn’t read emotions very well and is often too honest — not taking into account other people’s feelings.
At one point Sam made a list of the Pro’s and Con’s of Paige, his prospective girlfriend. Paige found an imprint of the list and used a pencil to read it.
Paige with Sam’s list of Pro’s and Cons about her.
To paraphrase their conversation:
“Why would you do that? You called me bossy and said I’m always interrupting people,” said Paige.
“But I also said that you had very clean shoes and had a nice neutral smell. So there were some good things in there,” said Sam.
“Ugh. You’re just not supposed to write that stuff down. It’s rude.”
And that’s the inherant problem with the way Face API displays people’s age. Making these things too transparent is just rude.
From all this, I’ve learned 3 things.
  1. It’s kind of creepy how AI can take things from the real world and “know” things about you.
  2. When building a computer program, features like “age” are useful in doing things like matching or making predictions but should generally be hidden from the end user.
  3. It’s much better to use this data for a different purpose, like figuring out which piece of artwork you look like.

 

Questions from a Reader

Hi Everyone!

In this email, I’m answering some questions from a reader.

Rob,

I really like what you put on this site. I’ve tried to blog myself but could use your advice on the following topics:

  1. Why write about something when you know that there’s bound to be someone on the internet that has written the same thing – likely better than you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just link to that?
  2. How do you decide what to write about?
  3. How can I do what you do? Whenever I sit down to write something, I find that I want to write a treatise and I never get finished with it.
  4. How do I subscribe to your blog?

Best,
Dave

I’ll answer these questions one at a time.

Why write about something when you know that there’s bound to be someone on the internet that has written the same thing – likely better than you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just link to that?

That’s a good point Dave. Here are a few reasons why I write rather than link:

  1. It’s not worth comparing myself to others. There’s always someone in the world who’s doing something better than me. But if I’m writing about something personal that means something to me, hopefully, I can bring something new to the conversation.
  2. Some people (like you) seem to be interested in what I write.
  3. To paraphrase Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, “I’m writing for myself. If other people want to read this that’s great. But I’m writing for me and not them.”
  4. It’s fun to write.
  5. The best way to become a better writer is to write more. Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange, has some great advice on how to be a great blogger. He says “If you can demonstrate a willingness to write, and a desire to keep continually improving your writing, you will eventually be successful.”
  6. Having a blog becomes a personal record of your thoughts and ideas. It becomes a record of who you are – hopefully of your best self.
  7. Think about your readers. If you look at my first posts I had a lot of links and quoted a lot of sources. This makes it difficult for your readers who just don’t have a lot of time. Paradoxically, by writing a little more, you’re having your readers read a lot less.
  8. You need to be confident in yourself that you have something useful to say. But you need to have your own ideas – not just parrot the ideas of others.

How do you decide what to write about?

I don’t decide what to write about as much as it finds me. I know it sounds corny but it’s true. I have a post a few weeks ago about the process I’m using.

I keep a prioritized list of ideas. When I look at the top of that list, I find a few things that are really exciting and fun to write about. I generally say, “Wow, that’s a really fun idea I’ve put on my list.”

How can I do what you do? Whenever I sit down to write something, I find that I want to write a treatise and I never get finished with it.

Going back to my previous post about writing, I’ll pick a topic that seems pretty exciting and try to figure out how I can get it across in the shortest amount possible. That keeps the boring stuff a minimum and lets me get done with pieces faster. Then I only write about things while they are still interesting. That’s what keeps it fun.

Another way to think about this is the Feynman Method of understanding:

  1. Describe the topic on one sheet of paper
  2. Simplify it so that it can be read by a non-specialist reader
  3. Repeat until you have gotten it simple enough

By the way, there’s a pretty cool and short video about Feynman’s view on what it really means to understand something.

Can I get notifications of your latest posts?

Yes you can! Just go to the bottom of the right column (on a desktop) or the bottom of the page (on mobile).

Thanks for your questions!

What Makes a Great Consultant OR the Best Appliance Repairman Ever

What makes a great consultant? It’s someone who get’s the job done quickly,  teaches me instead of selling me and gives me the advice for the future. I’ve also got a great example of a bad consultant. The best consultant that I’ve met recently was the guy that fixed my refrigerator.

The Issue

Our Viking refrigerator was broken. The water filter was stuck. It was so badly stuck that in the act of trying to get it out, I broke the holder for the water filter. At this point, we needed to call in an expert before my “home improvement” project became a “buy another fridge” project.

Calling for help

So I called Len’s Appliance in Brooklyn (718) 238-3200. In the past, I’ve learned its useful for me to be there when the repairman comes rather than trying to rope someone else in. If it’s a bad repairman, I can avoid the damage. If it’s a good repairman, there’s a lot I can learn.

 

Get in Quick, Get It Done and Get Out

He came in and fixed the problem within 10 seconds. He grabbed the filter, disengaged it from the holder and twisted to remove the filter. The filter holder itself was made horribly. Not only is it very flimsy but it requires a lot of force in an awkward position to remove it. This is not a good combination. The force needed to take the filter out of the refrigerator stresses the holder so every time I change the filter, it’s always on the verge of breaking it. Once he removed the filter from its holder he could easily apply enough force to remove the filter. Wow that’s bad design.

Teach Me to Fish Rather Than Selling Me a Fish

Now remember, I called Len’s because of the broken filter holder.  After removing the filter he told me where I could go to buy a replacement. It was fairly easy to install myself and it wouldn’t be worth the $125 service call for him to reinstall it. Then he paused. “On second thought,” he said, “you don’t actually need this piece at all.” He explained that the poorly designed holder that made it difficult to remove the filter was only in use DURING the filter change process. So it actually wasn’t necessary at all.

Give Me Advice for the Future

Then he told me about the refrigerator itself. We’d bought this Viking fridge because we were under the impression that this fridge was unique in its size. This is a tiny Manhattan kitchen where space is a premium. He mentioned that the fridge was actually a standard size which is great! He also said that it’s out of production now and that spare parts are more expensive and will continue to go up in price.  Eventually, the parts will be impossible to buy.

Did you know that refrigerators are only meant to last 7 years? That’s what he told us. That big expensive kitchen appliance that you thought would last forever goes out of production every 7 years and you’ll need to buy a new one when it breaks. He told us that if the refrigerator breaks badly, it’s probably worth just buying a new one.   Oh, and from what he’s seen, the cheaper models like GE break less often than the Viking ones.

He felt bad that he was charging me $125 for the visit when he was only in my apartment for 15 minutes. But this was the best repair visit that I’d ever had.

Now read about a really bad consultant.

 

The Power of Checklists OR I Don’t Care How Many Years You Went to School, You Still Have to Follow the Process

A few years ago when I was meeting with the head of compliance for a large bank. I know you’re thinking, “This is going to be fascinating.” But surprisingly it was.

Compliance is in many ways the quality assurance function of a bank. At big companies, making sure that things are done correctly is brutally difficult. The temptation is to demand that everyone double check everything and focus on each piece of work to make sure it’s right. And that’s what was happening here.

However, what you find out is that people aren’t very good at focusing on “everything” — especially the smart people who are really good at doing the hard stuff. Smart people aren’t very good at doing the boring stuff. That’s why they’re really smart people. They want to be challenged. So her team was good at doing the complicated things but missed quite a few boring items that people overlooked. 

So what should she do? I immediately thought that she should split up the mundane work from the actually difficult work and mentioned The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. I asked her if she’d ever heard of the book. With a flourish, she opens up a cabinet with a pile of books and says I give this book to everyone. Read more about the book and the manifesto in this post.

Oh, and for those of you that like this sort of thing, The Checklist Manifesto is one of Jack Dorsey’s favorite books. It’s sometimes referred to as The Big Red  Book.

Click Here to Kill Everyone. A Security Expert’s View on the Internet of Things.

There are a lot of articles about Artificial intelligence and what it will mean to the world. People are asking questions like Where is Technology Taking The Economy? and Where Machines Could Replace Humans?. One thing that’s clear is that computers have become an integral part of our life.

Computers used to be ancillary items that would help us get things done. For example,  a GPS system was just a better map. If the GPS failed, we could always go back to a map to find our way home. Today, we can’t live without computers. Take driving for instance. We don’t drive our cars anymore. When we turn the steering wheel or press a gas pedal we are actually sending a signal to the computer that that drives the car.

Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s top security experts, just published an article about the dangers of this new environment called Click Here to Kill Everyone. With the Internet of Things, we’re building a world-size robot. How are we going to control it?

Giant robot? What is Schneier talking about? He says:

Broadly speaking, the Internet of Things has three parts. There are the sensors that collect data about us and our environment: smart thermostats, street and highway sensors, and those ubiquitous smartphones with their motion sensors and GPS location receivers. Then there are the “smarts” that figure out what the data means and what to do about it. This includes all the computer processors on these devices and — increasingly — in the cloud, as well as the memory that stores all of this information. And finally, there are the actuators that affect our environment. The point of a smart thermostat isn’t to record the temperature; it’s to control the furnace and the air conditioner. Driverless cars collect data about the road and the environment to steer themselves safely to their destinations.

You can think of the sensors as the eyes and ears of the internet. You can think of the actuators as the hands and feet of the internet. And you can think of the stuff in the middle as the brain. We are building an internet that senses, thinks, and acts.

This is the classic definition of a robot. We’re building a world-size robot, and we don’t even realize it.

This reliance on computers changes the way we should be thinking about computer security. Security has three components: confidentiality, availability and integrity. In the past, when people were thinking about security, they were most concerned about confidentiality (e.g., someone was reading their email, someone stealing their identity). But today there’s a far bigger problem in availability and integrity. Shutting down your car (availability) is a far bigger problem than someone knowing where you are all the time (confidentiality). And modifying your car (integrity) to prevent your brakes from working on the highway is the biggest problem of all.

But even cars aren’t the biggest problem. It’s all these smaller things that we’re connecting to the Internet — the Internet of Things. Last year we saw some enterprising hackers marshal together millions of DVRs and webcams to attack the core infrastructure of the internet and bring websites like Twitter, Amazon and Netflix down. Here’s the basic problem:

  • Prioritizing functionality and cost over security. While companies like Apple and Google spend hundreds of millions of dollars on security and pushing out updates, there are many smaller companies making connected devices that don’t care much about security. They often aren’t made in a way to update this security. And because consumers don’t really care if their DVR or refrigerator has good security, it’s unlikely that this will change. So now you have devices connected to the internet that are vulnerable both as victims and coopted attackers. Because these devices are all connected in an ecosystem, a failure of one seemingly unimportant piece can cause far bigger consequences like how an unsecured fish tank connected to the internet let hackers infiltrate a casino.
  • Connecting everything to the internet. Now because all these devices are connected to thet internet, you’ve got to protect against the best hackers in the world. Just look at how North Korea is trying to finance the country through ransomware. I’m not convinced that I’m going to win a hacking battle with a nation — are you?

So how do we fix this? Schneider doesn’t have great solutions but he has a couple:

  • Regulation. While regulation is normally anathema to computer programmers, for cybersecurity it is needed. There are a few ways to look at this. First of all, the internet as a whole is a utility. In order to maintain the availability of the utility and protect against catastrophe, it’s reasonable to regulate it. Secondly, you can view security as a public health system. In order to maintain the health of the internet, we need to ensure that there are a limited number of viruses on it and we take those viruses seriously. Otherwise, these viruses can imperil the health of the entire system. Schneir’s point is that regulation is inevitable so we should start thinking about it now.
  • Disconnection. Why are we connecting everything to the internet?! Everyone is so excited about connecting everything to the internet without thinking about the risks. How much do we lose by disconnecting a power station’s controls from the Internet? It’s probably a little more expensive to have a person or two stationed directly at the plant. But if we leave them connected, there’s the real danger that they can be attacked by a hacker and brought down or destroyed. 

In the excitement over all the possibilities that Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things can bring, we need to be vigilant about protecting the ecosystem. But people remain far too optimistic about the future. Just today I saw an article titled Cyber Attacks on U.S. Power Grids Can Be Deterred With Password Changes that should have been titled “US Power Grid Has Multiple Security Holes.” Oh, and taking down a power grid is already being tested in Ukraine.

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

Have you ever had a thought that the whole world was crazy? That there was something so painfully obvious that you couldn’t believe everyone was missing? For me, it was the idea that all business books had the same plot:

  1. Let me tell you about this new business theory I have!
  2. I will prove this new theory about business by showing that it applies to great companies like Wal*Mart, Apple, etc.!

I kept wondering why it was only me. Then I came across the book The Halo Effect (with great summary here) by Phil Rosenzweig.

Rosensweig’s key point is that companies only have one independent variable that can be measured — how good it’s doing financially. Companies that are doing well have all these awesome attributes: great leadership, great culture, etc. And companies that are doing poorly have all these horrible features: poor leadership, poor strategy, etc. He uses the example of Cisco:

As an example, when Cisco Systems was growing rapidly, in the late 1990s, it was widely praised by journalists and researchers for its brilliant strategy, masterful management of acquisitions, and superb customer focus. When the tech bubble burst, many of the same observers were quick to make the opposite attributions. Cisco, the journalists and researchers claimed, now had a flawed strategy, haphazard acquisition management, and poor customer relations. On closer examination, Cisco really had not changed much—a decline in its performance led people to see the company differently. Indeed, Cisco staged a remarkable turnaround and today is still one of the leading tech companies.

This isn’t an exercise in analysis or science — it’s an exercise in storytelling. People look at how well the company did and create a story retrospectively to explain it. Rosenzweig quotes Eliot Aronson who says “people are rationalizing beings rather than rational beings.”

But how can these books be so off when they do so much analysis? They talk about going through tens of thousands of pages of financial reports and business press. But maybe this is just theater to make the findings seem more valid than they really are. The less we know about a topic the more we need to dress it up. I remember when I asked a math professor “Why don’t you see very many well-dressed mathematicians?

Math is different from other fields in that you don’t have to prove you’re an authority in math. Your math does it for you. You can solve the problems, they can’t. In English and the Humanities, it’s much more subjective, and so you need some extra way of establishing yourself as an authority figure.

The core problem in analyzing great companies is that there isn’t any good data. Criteria like leadership, customer orientation and culture are subjective. And the financial success of the business leads directly to the contagion of the other metrics.  Rosenzweig says:

The halo effect is especially damaging because it often compromises the quality of data used in research. Indeed, many studies of business performance—as well as some articles that have appeared in journals such as Harvard Business Review and McKinsey Quarterly and in academic business journals—rely on data contaminated by the halo effect. These studies praise themselves for the vast amount of data they have accrued but overlook the fact that if the data aren’t valid, it really doesn’t matter how much was gathered or how sophisticated the analysis appears to be.

The upshot is that business books are telling you stories about great companies and rationalizing the greatness of those companies.  For managers who are looking to improve their companies, these books won’t be helpful. The books are peddling quick fixes and “one size fits all” strategies. But these strategies certainly won’t work for all companies. Managers and leaders need to understand that their role is to be agile and do what’s best in their specific role. They need to look at their company and their environment and determine what strategies will have the best chance of success.

The Epistemology of Google

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy — the theory of knowledge, 
especially with regard to its methods,
validity, and scope
— Google Definitions

“Daddy, what is the meaning of life?” says the child.

“It’s complicated,” says the dad.

“Why don’t you ask Google?”

Laugh if you will but the question makes perfect sense to kids. Google knows everything doesn’t it? “What’s the weather?,” “How do I get to San Francisco?”, and even  “Why is the sky blue?” The big question is: “What doesn’t Google know?” Or, stated another way, “What knowledge can’t we outsource to Google?”

Knowing Facts vs. Gaining Understanding

It really comes down to two different kinds of knowledge: knowing facts and gaining understanding. The Farnam Street blog has a good description of this  and there’s a great video of Richard Feynman explaining it.  In summary:

  • Knowing Facts. You know what something is called and what it looks like. This is the type of information that Google is very good at.
  • Gaining Understanding. Taking various bits of information and really making it your own? This is the type of thing that you can’t ask Google because it’s about changing who you are (i.e., learning).

One good way to know the difference is the difficulty of what you’re reading or watching. If you can read it quickly you’re probably reading for facts. Reading for understanding requires you to sit down at the foot of the author and realize that things may not make sense in the beginning. I think of true learning as fundamentally changing myself. Kind of like in the Terminator 2 movie where the T-1000 changes his shape in the face of adversity.

Knowing Facts

So what does Google know:

  • Define a word (like epistemology)?
  • What’s happening in the news?
  • Who starred in the princess bride?
  • When is Mothers Day?
  • How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?

Rad Bradbury had a great section on knowing facts in Fahrenheit 451. The book is a metaphor on how books can be explosive with ideas. But the government can provide so many facts that people don’t have room for ideas:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Filling in the Gaps

Data and facts can be useful but you need a framework to use them. William Poundstone has a great book on the topic called Head in the Clouds: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy. Poundstone’s key point in the book is that Google can’t teach you what you need to Google. In order to do that, you need a framework of understanding.  Facts are like bricks in a wall of knowledge. There can be some gaps and the wall will maintain its structural integrity. But if we remove too many, you have bricks hanging in midair and the wall collapses.

Gaining Knowledge

Gaining knowledge is about more than gathering facts. The best guide to gaining knowledge is from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. The book was written in 1940 and revised in 1972 and it holds up incredibly well. The key idea is that to read a book well, you don’t just read the words or learn the key points. You need to understand the knowledge inside that book and let it change you — which takes effort. For a summary of the key points, the Farnam Street blog does a good write up. But if you really want to learn from these guys, you really have to read the book.

In short, the book says that an engaged reader needs to ask the following questions:

  1. What type of book am I reading? What do I hope to gain by reading it?
  2. What is the author’s high level points / argument?
  3. How does the author make this argument? At this point you don’t agree or disagree with the author by bringing any predefined prejudices to the argument.
  4. After reading the whole argument, going back and asking “Is it true in whole or in part?”
  5. For the pieces that you find true, “What are you going to do about it and how does it change your world view?”

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury talks about what makes an engaged reader. These are the people the government is concerned about. As one of the rebels says, there are three things needed to engage with a book:

  1. Quality Information: “What does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more `literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail.”
  2. Leisure: “[When] you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor…. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”
  3. Action: “The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two. “

If this all sounds difficult, that’s the point. You can’t expect to have other people do your thinking for you. You need to pose questions and answer them. You need to argue with the author once you’ve understood him or her.

Why is this Important?

Google in many ways is like the world’s most awesome encyclopedia or your friend with a photographic memory who watches TV all the time. He’s  a great guy to have around but not someone you should trust with important decisions. In an age when you can type a few keystrokes and feel like you’re changing the world it’s hard to put in all that effort.

But getting back to the original question, the reason that Google can’t answer “What is the meaning of life?” is that it needs to be figured out by living. It’s a question that’s only answered by learning and discussion. Basically, it requires gaining knowledge throughout your life.

“Our Genes Ourselves” OR Are Humans Monogamous?

Having a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, it’s easy to ask the question “Why did you do that?” If I had super brilliant kids, they might respond, “My genes made me do it.”

There are a lot of things that we think we control or decisions we think we make that are really rooted in evolution. Take for instance this quote from Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works which could be titled “Oh Cheesecake, Why Do I Love Thee So … Even As You Pad My Belly With Fat?”:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.

Cheesecake itself is not good for us, but each of the elements of cheesecake would have been strongly beneficial to our ancestors. Now that we’ve settled that one, what other questions can evolution help us with? How about this one, “Are Humans Monogamous?”

Robert Sapolsky, in his Great Courses Series, Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, uses biology to answer this question. Sapolsky divides species into 2 types: tournament species (polygamous) and pair bonded (monogamous). In a tournament species, males spread their genes by mating with any females around. Once they pass along their genes, they abandon their mate and look for someone new. Pair bonded males bond for life and are very paternal.

There are clear traits that call out how each species has evolved. In a tournament species, males are built for fighting. They are much larger than females, have huge canine teeth and much larger skulls (but not brains) than females. They often have weapons like giant antlers. Females, not looking for a fight, look very different from the males. In pair bonded species males and females look much more similar.

So what are humans? Based on the physical markers, males and females are relatively equal in appearance. Males have large canines but not huge. And men are bigger than women but not terribly so. So the biological answer is that humans aren’t polygamous or monogamous. The official classification for homo sapiens is “tragically confused.”

Let’s Get On The Same Page People! OR Great Ideas Need Great Communication

Have you been here? You have a great idea — an amazing and awesome idea that will completely transform your product. But it never quite took off. Why? One reason might be that you didn’t communicate the idea well enough. Communication is an incredibly important skill in an organization, though it’s very hard to do well. A lot of times an idea is totally clear to me and therefore I think it should be very clear to someone else. But the other person has a very different perspective.

In this post I’ll explain why communication is important, show some examples of communication failures and then present one useful way of thinking about communication

Why is Communication So Important?

As people move up in an organization, technical skills become less important and business skills gradually grow in importance.

  1. Technical Skills. When starting off in a job you are hired for your specific skills as an individual contributor. These are skills like creating a PowerPoint, or analyzing a spreadsheet or coding up a project in a programming language.
  2. Business Skills. As you get more senior in an organization, it’s more important to set direction and get everyone moving in that direction. That’s all about communication.

Examples People Being On Different Pages

  1. I remember one day a few years ago. It was a beautiful day. I was casually walking down the street smiling all the way. Then I noticed a thin blond woman around 40. She was in thin white dress with a small stroller next to her and this awful grimace on her face. She was shooting her hand up as she desperately tried to hail a cab.

    So I thought to myself “I’ll help her hail a cab because she looks like she needs lots of help.” So I put my arm up.

    Man, did she start screaming, “Don’t steal my cab! I just stepped on a piece of glass which is now stuck in my foot! I really need this cab!

    “When I look back, she obviously thought I was trying to hail a cab for myself — because I never told her what I was up to. Why would a person be hailing a cab for her without mentioning it? Instead of this being helpful I just made her life more difficult.

  2. This is a pretty amazing article that introduced Michael Lewis into the world of high frequency traders which he later wrote about in Flash Boys. It follows the case of Sergey Aleynikov who worked at Goldman Sachs. The way Goldman saw it, Aleynikov stole Goldman’s software code that was worth millions. Aleynikov thought he was just uploading open source software to an online repository. It’s a story about the hacker ethos vs. the Goldman ethos. Spoiler Alert: Goldman wins and Aleynikov ends up in jail.Here’s one example of the difference. Goldman thought Aleynikov was being nefarious because he was using a repository called “subversion” (i.e., he was trying to subvert Goldman). In reality, subversion is a repository for multiple versions of your code (“sub-versions” of your code).

  3. There’s a lot of comedy based on people coming at the same situation from different points of view. One of my favorites is Rowan Atkinson’s Fatal Conversations where the Principal at a boarding school is concerned about a student’s horrible behavior. The father, for some reason, is more concerned that the principal has beaten his son to death. The humor, of course, is the two different perspectives.

  4. Richard Feynman, the famous physicist had synesthesia, a mental difference where some things are seen as colors. From Surely You Must be Joking, Mr. Feynman: “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.”

  5. I could go on forever with examples. While I was writing this, I happened to listen to the an episode of Invisibilia called Frame of Reference where they talk about how one person can have two different points of view inside their own head.
  6. How Does Pixar Think About Communication?

    In the book Creativity Inc Ed Catmull wrote about the different mental models that people use to make sense of their jobs. Here’s a great one on communication:

    Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce—whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”

Micro-Kitchens are the Modern Day Coffeehouses

I was thinking about companies that serve free food (few companies) or coffee (almost everyone). While there are some emotional reasons companies do this, e.g., showing appreciation for workers or desire to keep them healthy, I think there are solid business reasons to do this.

Providing Spaces For Lunch (or Buying Lunch for the Company) Sparks Innovation

Gathering everyone together for lunch naturally sparks ideas. I remember the story from The Psychology of Computer Programming where Gerald Weinberg talks about management removing the water cooler from the office because they noticed that employees were always around it. Once the water cooler was removed, productivity plummeted. As it turns out, the water cooler was a hub of informal knowledge transfer. I liked this quote from Peter Diamandis’s piece From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation because they talked about 18th century coffeehouses — the non-work places where great ideas were sparked.

The coffeehouse was a hub for information sharing. These new establishments drew people from all walks of life. Suddenly the rabble could party alongside the royals, and this allowed all sorts of novel notions to begin to meet and mingle and, as Matt Ridley says, “have sex.” In his book London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite explains it this way “The London coffee-houses provided a gathering place where, for a penny admission charge, any man who was reasonably dressed could smoke his long, clay pipe, sip a dish of coffee, read the newsletters of the day, or enter into conversation with other patrons. At the period when journalism was in its infancy and the postal system was unorganized and irregular, the coffee-house provided a center of communication for news and information… Naturally, this dissemination of news led to the dissemination of ideas, and the coffee-house served as a forum for their discussion.”

Serving Coffee as a Drug Delivery System

I always wondered why coffee was available in every office I’ve worked in. First I thought it was a perk for employees. Now I realize it’s a drug delivery system. Caffeine is one of the most powerful drugs known to man. By keeping employees hopped up on coffee, you can make them a lot more productive. But keeping caffeine pills by the water fountain seems so vulgar — so we are left with coffee. As Diamandis says:

In his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson explores the impact of coffeehouses on the Enlightenment culture of the 18th century. “It’s no accident,” he says, “that the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages.” There are two main drivers at work here. The first is that before the discovery of coffee, much of the world was intoxicated much of the day. This was mostly a health issue. Water was too polluted to drink, so beer was the beverage of choice. In his New Yorker essay “Java Man,” Malcolm Gladwell explains it this way: “Until the 18th century, it must be remembered, many Westerners drank beer almost continuously, even beginning their day with something called “beer soup.” Now they begin each day with a strong cup of coffee. One way to explain the industrial revolution is as the inevitable consequence of a world where people suddenly preferred being jittery to being drunk.”

So eat, drink and be innovative!

PS I once saw this hanging in an office: