September 2011 Archives

Apple's secret sauce: Obsessive perfectionism

Apple doesn’t want to look great or seem great, Apple wants to BE great:

“I’m not sure Apple even thinks about the competition,” Yamashita says. “They’re uniquely themselves without worrying about anyone else. When I worked for Steve there was little discussion about the competition. The aim was for us to be the most extreme version of ourselves.” …

“Apple is obsessiveness to the power of 10,” he says. “And you see it everywhere. It’s in things that are immediately visible, like the retail stores. They spend more on tenant improvements than anyone: stone floors, not wood floors; glass tables, not plexiglass. But it’s also in things you don’t ordinarily see: Apple has the most symmetrically laid out motherboard in the industry. They’re obsessive about the supply chain, obsessive about the design of the product, the packaging.”

Yamashita tells the story of Jobs’s walk-through before the opening of the first Apple Store. At the time, Apple was selling iMacs, the candy-colored computers that came in different “flavors.” Jobs walked into the store where the computers were lined up flawlessly on a table, took one look at the display, then ordered the computers taken off and the table turned upside down. Then he pointed at a seam on the bottom of the table and pronounced it “unacceptable.” Of course, customers would never see it. That wasn’t the point. The point was it was there. The point was not to allow an imperfection. The point was not to give up on the Apple dream.

“Apple has always been on an ongoing journey to be its best self,” Yamashita says. “Its marketing mission is to help Apple customers get the most out of their Apple products, to equip and enable their customers to be their best self, too. That kind of thinking has led to online tutorials, lessons at the Apple Stores, ‘gen­ius bars.’ What other company would hire 12,000 experts and then not charge customers a penny to talk with them?”

The same formula — relentless determination to improve continually — works for students too:

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

Posted by James on Sep 19, 2011

Elizabeth Warren: "Nobody in this country... got rich on his own. Nobody"

I’ve long admired Professor Elizabeth Warren. I hope she’ll soon become the junior Senator from the great state Commonwealth of Massachusetts because she cares about ordinary Americans and fights for ordinary Americans:

I hear all this, “Oh! This is class warfare.” No! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Posted by James on Sep 21, 2011

Good managers "remove obstacles, provide help and acknowledge effort"

From the obvious-but-seldom-applied management advice category comes more evidence on the central importance of worker engagement:

In a 2010 study, James K. Harter and colleagues found that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. Gallup estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually….

In one-third of the 12,000 diary entries [we collected], the diarist was unhappy, unmotivated or both. In fact, workers often expressed frustration, disdain or disgust. Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do….

Workers’ well-being depends, in large part, on managers’ ability and willingness to facilitate workers’ accomplishments — by removing obstacles, providing help and acknowledging strong effort. A clear pattern emerged when we analyzed the 64,000 specific workday events reported in the diaries: of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.

As long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work. “This time it looks good! I feel more positive about this project and my work than I’ve felt in a long time,” one programmer wrote after she’d completed a small but difficult task. This kind of rich inner work life improves performance, which further supports inner work life — a positive spiral.

…Of the seven companies we studied, just one had managers who consistently supplied the catalysts — worker autonomy, sufficient resources and learning from problems — that enabled progress. Not coincidentally, that company was the only one to achieve a technological breakthrough in the months we studied it.

Posted by James on Sep 08, 2011

"New" wonder drug evolved by sharks over 700 million years

Sharks have been swimming the oceans for close to a billion years. One reason for their success is “squalamine,” a unique chemical that protects sharks from all viruses and appears a possible cure for many human diseases:

the compound is already in human clinical trials for cancer and eye disorders, and several hundred people have been exposed without major side effects. The new study revealed that squalamine can also disrupt a virus’s life cycle and prevent it from replicating in both tissue cultures and live animals.

The story of how it works is fascinating:

Squalamine is a positively charged molecule, so when it enters a cell, the molecule immediately sticks “like Velcro” to the cell’s inner membranes, which have negative charges, Zasloff said.

By doing so, squalamine “pops off” any positively charged proteins that were attached to the cell membrane—an action that does no harm to the cell, Zasloff noted.

When a virus invades a cell, it expects those proteins to be present on the cell membrane. Without them, the virus can’t reproduce.

“There is no other compound known to science that does this—this is a remarkable property,” Zasloff said.

Humanity’s rapidly improving ability to study molecular biology could possibly trigger an incredible human health revolution in which studying other animals' evolutionary adaptations and mixing-and-matching them to improve our health lets us live remarkably longer, healthier lives.

Posted by James on Sep 22, 2011

Parents, please read these articles

I encourage parents to read these two articles: The end of innocence: The cost of sexualizing kids and Sexualizing kids: No child left behind — and fighting back.

Sadly, this is not just a teen problem:

Even toddlers in promotional posters wear skimpy clothes, vampy looks and makeup. At home later, the children will likely watch TV. Little ones, 2 to 11, average 32 hours a week…. During those hours, they’ll drink in ads for hair products and teen-siren TV shows, makeup and technology, much of it couched as “hot” or “sexy.” …[Other examples include] Vogue covers featuring small girls made up and posed like grown women, thongs and push-up padded bras for children as young as 6, Walmart’s line of 70 make-up products for girls 6 to 12 [and] skinnier-than-life Barbies targeted toward 3-year-olds. …[N]early a third of girls' clothing sizes 6 to 14 is “sexy.”

This angers me, but kids are being exposed to it, so parents need to understand and help their kids develop healthy attitudes.

Beyond highlighting the problem, the articles offer excellent info and advice, e.g.:

  • “While saying no is a natural parental instincts, he says the optimal approach is to help their child understand why a certain TV show or piece of clothing is not OK. ‘You’d be surprised at how reasonable children can be when rules are accompanied by an explanation,’ he says. ‘Children are always learning. If they’re not learning from their mothers or fathers, they are going to learn from other sources.’”
  • “Thomsen thinks it’s vital that a young girl hears that their fathers think she’s a lovely, wonderful person. ‘That’s feedback that will maybe make her feel strong and resistant to other influences.’”
  • “she’s also guiding them through a process of analyzing things critically. "What do you think they’re trying to sell?” she asks when a model runs her fingers through her luxurious hair for a shampoo commercial. ‘Is it just shampoo?’"
  • “What receives praise matters, too. Instead of telling a child she’s smart or beautiful, he recommends praising traits like how nurturing she was to her doll or how hard she worked on her term paper.”

Posted by James on Sep 22, 2011

Scientists prove dolphin communication is quite sophisticated

Humans generally think of ourselves as qualitatively more intelligent than all other animals… so much more intelligent, in fact, that many humans refuse to accept that we are animals.

And one of the most commonly cited “proofs” of our intellectual superiority is our rich, complex language.

Ironically, our arrogance about our language dominance may actually reflect our intellectual inability to grasp other animals' languages.

This article reports fascinating research analyzing dolphin communication (using “information theory”) to prove dolphins communicate in sophisticated ways humans — despite decades of trying — still cannot comprehend. Scientists haven’t yet collected enough data to determine exactly how rich dolphin communication is, but we already know dolphins communicate using quite expressive language:

As Carl Sagan once famously said, “It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to 50 words used in correct context – no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”

…[A]ccording to information theory, dolphin communication is highly complex with many similarities with human languages, even if we don’t understand the words they are saying to one another.

Information theory was developed in the 1940s by the mathematician and cryptologist Claude Shannon, mainly to be applied to the then-burgeoning technology of telecommunications. It operates on the knowledge that all information can be broken down into ‘bits’ of data that can be rearranged in myriad ways. George Zipf, a linguist at Harvard, realized that language is just the conveyance of information, and therefore could be broken down too.

Think of all the different sounds human beings make as they speak to each other, the different letters and pronunciations. Some, such as the letters ‘e’ and ’t' or words such as ‘and’ or ‘the’ will occur far more frequently than ‘q’ or ‘z’ or longer words such as ‘astrobiology’. Plot these on a graph, in order of the most frequently occurring letters or sounds, and the points form a slope with a –1 gradient.

A toddler learning to speak will have a steeper slope – as they experiment with words they use fewer sounds but say them more often. At the most extreme a baby’s babble is completely random, and so any slope will be nearly level with all sounds occurring fairly evenly. It doesn’t matter which human language is put through the information theory test – be it English, Russian, Arabic or Mandarin – the same result follows.

What is remarkable is that putting dolphin whistles through the information theory blender renders exactly the same result: a –1 slope, with a steeper slope for younger dolphins still being taught how to communicate by their mothers, and a horizontal slope for baby dolphins babbling. This tells us that dolphins have structure to how they communicate.

Meanwhile, another feature of information theory, called Shannon entropy, can tell us how complex that communication is…. Write down 100 words on one hundred pieces of paper and throw them into the air and they can be arranged in myriad ways. Impose rules on them, such as sentence structure, and your choices automatically narrow. It is a bit like playing hangman; you have a five-letter word where the first letter is ‘q’, so the rule structure of English necessitates that the second letter is ‘u’. From thereon there is a limited number of letters that can follow ‘qu’ and so you may have ‘que’ or ‘qui’ or ‘qua’ and you can predict that the word is ‘quest’ or ‘quick’ or ‘quack’. Shannon entropy is defined as this application of order over data and the resulting predictability of that order.

“It turns out that humans go up to about ninth order Shannon entropy,” said Doyle. “What that means is, if you are missing more than nine words then there is no longer a conditional relationship between them – they become random and pretty much any word will do.” In other words, there are conditional probabilities, imposed by the rule structures of human languages, up to nine words away.

Doyle has analyzed many forms of communication with information theory, from the chemical signals of plants to the rapid-fire radio transmissions of air traffic control. How do dolphins fare? “They have a conditional probability between signals that goes up to fourth order and probably higher, although we need more data,” said Doyle.

Posted by James on Sep 11, 2011

Smart tech firms give employees large monitors and quality chairs

As expensive as work chairs are, the ROI on a properly adjusted, quality chair is huge:

Improving the ergonomics of chairs and other equipment increases productivity by an average 17%, based on a review of 40 studies of office workers published in 2008 in the Journal of Safety Research. Workers tended to have fewer musculoskeletal problems and a lower rate of absences and errors, the studies found.

The ROI on a large monitor is even greater (according to university research funded by a monitor company):

Organizations that upgrade their employees' standard-format monitors to widescreen displays can realize productivity gains equivalent to 76 extra work days a year per worker.

They also can realize annual cost savings of more than $8,600 per staff member, according to a recent survey. (That math assumes a staffer who makes $32,500 annually.)

But even a monitor-size skeptic concedes empirical evidence demonstrates productivity gains from larger monitors.

Posted by James on Sep 21, 2011

Steve Jobs: Unemployable

Stanford University Professor Bob Sutton advises companies to hire “outliers” but says few do: “The fact is, Steve Jobs couldn’t get hired in most American companies, much less be the CEO. He couldn’t pass through the interview screens.”

Steve Jobs is today considered perhaps the greatest CEO in many decades, but he was once fired by Apple, the company he founded!

Like Jobs and many other unconventional geniuses, Bill Belichick was fired. Belichick had the Cleveland Browns moving in the right direction till owner Art Modell announced he would move the team to Baltimore. Belichick inherited a 3-13 Browns team and, over four seasons, coached them to continually improving records of 6-10, 7-9, 7-9, and 11-5 (plus a playoff win). The following season, things started well, but Belichick’s Browns collapsed after news of the move to Baltimore leaked, and he lost his job. The renamed Ravens suffered three consecutive losing seasons after Belichick left. Even ignoring Belichick’s amazing post-Browns success, Belichick’s Browns record looks pretty good. But Art Modell (and most sports journalists) failed to appreciate Belichick’s football genius.

Many pay lip service to “thinking outside the box” but few firms actually behave as if they value and reward innovative, creative, multi-disciplinary people. Radical innovators often must build their own firms from scratch to breathe life into the wild visions in their minds.

Posted by James on Sep 19, 2011

TDD + autotest = happy developers + quality code

In test-driven development (TDD), we make each test fail before we write the code that makes it pass. It’s a great practice because it helps you spot bugs almost instantly (esp. if you use “autotest” or a similar program to automatically run your tests every time you modify any code or test).

A few minutes ago, I wrote the following “failing test”:

it "won't overwrite an existing file" do
  FakeFS do
    File.open(house_appraisal_downloader.appraisal_dir + '/test_record.html', 'w') { |outf| outf.write("abcde") }
    expect {house_appraisal_downloader.save_as('test_record.html')}.to raise_error
  end
end

I expected my test to fail by overwriting the existing file and not raising an error. Instead, it passed — by raising an error when I hadn’t expected one since I hadn’t yet written the code to prevent overwriting existing files.)

To see the error, I ran:

it "won't overwrite an existing file" do
  FakeFS do
    File.open(house_appraisal_downloader.appraisal_dir + '/test_record.html', 'w') { |outf| outf.write("abcde") }
    house_appraisal_downloader.save_as('test_record.html')
  end
end

The error message pointed me straight to my goof. My code should have been:

def save_as(filename)
  File.open(@appraisal_dir + '/' + filename, 'w') { |outf| outf.write("12345") }
end

But I had forgotten to add , 'w' as the second parameter of File.open!

So thank you yet again, TDD. Writing failing tests before writing the code to make them pass is a brilliant way to catch errors immediately. It simultaneously builds a large test suite that documents your code and immediately identifies future code regressions.

Posted by James on Sep 09, 2011

Tony Romo: World's dumbest person?

(I’m uncomfortable calling anyone “dumb,” but Tony Romo makes tens of millions of dollars to play a game and single-handedly threw away — through repeated acts of stupidity — a game his team had already won. All Romo had to do to seal the victory was not hand the ball back to the Jets. Instead, he gifted the ball to the Jets TWICE in the final quarter. He deserves to be called “dumb.”)

As a Patriots fan, I was thoroughly enjoying tonight’s Dallas Cowboys thumping of the Jets. Dallas was up by 14 points and had 1st-and-goal at the Jets' 2 yard line. Soon to be at least a 17-point 4th quarter lead. The Cowboys franchise had NEVER lost a 14-or-more-point 4th quarter lead. And Dallas is about to tack on at least 3 more. Game over.

Except I hadn’t accounted for the world’s dumbest man, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, throwing the game away. When you’re up by two touchdowns in the 4th quarter and have an automatic chip-shot field goal — even if you’re sacked — 99% of your focus should be on not turning the ball over. Don’t worry about scoring a touchdown if there’s any risk involved. Throw the ball at the hot dog vendor or curl up in the fetal position. Just don’t turn it over. Instead, Romo decides he’s a running back and dives straight into the teeth of the Jets defense, immediately coughing the ball up at the 1-yard line. Jets get the ball back and score, making it a 7-point game. Then, after the Cowboys fail to move the ball, they try to punt and somehow forget to block the Jets defender in the very middle of the field… with the shortest path to their punter. It’s like Moses parted the Red Sea for the Jets guy to put his hand on the ball before the punter could kick it. Punt blocked and run back for an easy touchdown. Tie game.

OK, so you’ve blown a two-touchdown lead. But it’s still a coin flip. Dallas has a 4th-and-1 and punts it. I would have gambled on 4th down because Dallas had lost its top three cornerbacks and the Jets were driving easily on their replacements. Going for it on 4th seemed a worthwhile gamble. But Dallas punts and eventually gets the ball back. But then Romo throws a short completion… to the Jets' Darelle Revis! Romo throws the ball to a double-covered receiver while the league’s best cornerback stands between Romo and his receiver. Are you kidding me, Tony? Have the bookies threatened your family or something? Or are you just the world’s stupidest person?

And I haven’t even mentioned the foolish delay-of-game penalties. Or the critical second-to-last play where the Cowboys needed about 30 yards but Tony wasn’t even paying attention when his center snapped the ball to him. While Romo was looking elsewhere, the ball clanged off his chest, killing whatever hope Dallas still had of kicking a tying field goal. And this was, I believe, after a Jets timeout! How does a quarterback not know the snap count after a timeout? Amazing. The Jets had no business winning that game. Romo served it on a platter.

Posted by James on Sep 12, 2011