Is Justice Roberts a Mystery?

I just read Linda Greenhouse’s article on John Roberts. My take is this: when justice Roberts was a youth, and some of his peers were wearing “question authority” pins, Roberts, were he the pin-wearing type, would have worn a “question lack of authority” pin.

He has upheld the authority of government whenever possible, and is very persnickety about questions of the standing necessary for plaintiffs to challenge its authority. He has upheld the right of people (shareholders) to authorize collectives (corporations) to speak on their behalf.

I think his reference to the duty of the court to find a law constitutional if there is any possible interpretation that doesn’t rule it out was not just a political calculation, but an expression of a strongly held principle.

Why don’t tornados dig holes?

It seems like we are off to another record year for tornados. When I see pictures of tornado devastated land, everything above ground is ripped up, but the ground itself is always pretty much intact.

If a tornado were to strike a desert, one would expect sand to be redistributed pretty extensively. Perhaps not actually creating holes very often, as that would require a counterintuitive overall lowering of entropy. But certainly sand dunes would not be in at all the same places once the tornado passed.

This doesn’t seem to happen in the areas where tornados actually strike. I suspect that the surface tension of the water in the rain-soaked ground binds it together so that it can’t be lifted (except as a very heavy, elastic whole). I wonder if architects have thought of taking advantage of this effect? Perhaps turf roofs together with vents designed to allow rapid pressure equalization would allow many more structures to remain standing….

Binocular Beauty or Do It Right the Second Time

I was taken to the dogshed by my lead developer the other day. We have been building a web service api, and a javascript analytics client, both at the same time. He’d been grumbling about the service interfaces for some time; I’d resisted changing them. Finally, I noticed he was getting more and more sullen. It turned out that he was not just annoyed but really upset about the interfaces.

Certainly, they could be improved. As he said, they were “RPC-style” interfaces, despite our stated goal of following REST principles. Indeed, I had cooked them up in 45 minutes one evening. They did support the client fairly succinctly, but would almost almost certainly break if we made any design changes, or tried to write a second application (which we will soon).

So I gave him the go ahead to rewrite the interface. He spent the day writing it anew along REST principles. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but I’m sure its much better; also, having created it, he’ll be much more productive writing the client.

So why did I drag my feet? Because I believe in Doing It Right (or putting in significant effort to get it right) the Second Time. Not the first time, and not the third. In particular, for an interface, thinking hard about what the best abstractions are is best done in conjunction with writing the 2nd client. Its often worth *not* doing for the first client, even if this means parts will have to be rewritten.

This isn’t a hard rule (note that I caved to my developer rather than argue). Also, for tasks you have already done before and know how to do, by all means do them right. But for new, exploratory work, it is nevertheless a good tenet. The intuition is the same as for pairwise testing and binocular vision. To tell the difference between phenomena and epi-phenomena often requires more than one perspective; much more rarely, for the main outlines at least, does it require more than two.

Socio-Economic Content In Sex-Ed

My older son’s school offers sex-ed in two tranches: at the end of fifth grade, and in seventh grade. The first part seems to have explained the biology fairly well, and let him at least talk about sex — so pretty good, I would say.

The school also has some policies regarding sexual behavior. For instance, certain types of clothing are not allowed, as they are deemed inappropriately erotic for young teenagers. Fine. But does the justification for this rule follow from anything they are taught in class? I would venture to say — almost certainly not.

And yet, would it be that difficult to add a bit of socio-economic (or cultural) content to sex-ed? It is not hard to grasp that, if monogamy and promiscuity are the extremes of human sexual strategy, they make uneasy neighbors. Also, we needn’t teach Freud (or not very much) to illuminate how social structure is built out of units — like couples and families — whose glue is often sexual relationships.

Tolerance is taught; but prudence seems to be only taught in terms of the dangers of unsafe sex, and the need to respect oneself and others. Nothing is said about why a social system (such as a school) might want to constrain even safe sex. Or, on the other hand, why a larger society might be more stable if its members follow diverse strategies. (Or individuals follow mixed strategies.)

Beyond economics, there is a great opportunity to teach how sex fits together with culture, but I don’t suppose that many schools will be wading into that soon. Nevertheless, for young minds starting to think not only about sex, but to think for themselves in general (though not necessarily at the same time as speaking — alas a difficult art), tools for thinking about their own sexuality on the basis of their biology are good. They should also be given tools to think about how their sexuality is part of how they relate to their community, and economics could provide a “neutral” framework for this discussion.

Dissolution of the Shop

The original commercialized blogger was a shopkeeper. They had to choose what to carry, and they had a lot at stake when they made their choice. They might get the word out with a cardboard tweet on asile 2, or via coupon spam in the local newspaper. They quite literally worked on commission — or at least on the markup they took over the wholesale price.

Now, the functions of the shop are being redistributed. Online brand advocates manage local marketing. Local may mean geography, but it may also mean the circle of their associates, where ever they are. Even more directly, local means the mobile device in your pocket. Others deal with sales; still others, possibly, with warehousing and shipping. Product service could be dealt with separately again.

The irony is that the same person who is incensed by product recommendations creeping into the online dialog may very well be someone who bemoans the march of retail giants at the expense of neighborhood stores. And yet the fabled relationship with a shop keeper was much more conscribed by commercial dictates of the shop than that with an online blogger: on the one hand shops can sell only what shopkeepers can stock. On the other, a commercial blogger can be purely commercial, but has much less other sympathy they can trade on, and much more competition. So if they are recommending, and want to establish a relationship at all, they better do a good job at recommending.

All of the components of the new retail structure are familiar, actually. But how are they going to be knit together in the new configuration, and by whom? Are we going to float down toward the new retail sea wafted by the gentle currents of Amazon? Or is it finally going to meander into the swamps, like AOL, with the glue provided by savvy startups like Zappli?

(I’m an investor in Zappli, btw…. )

Spacetime is a waste

The modern world … at least since the time of Descartes … has gotten confortable with the notion that things happen “in” time and space. Everything has its coordinate. Film is just a simulation of what is happening – but in some sense a good simulation: it has the same genus, as it were, as reality itself.

But from a data structure point of view — what a waste! Zillions of addresses, almost all of them empty! What’s it all for? What evidence could there be for all of that? When two things interact, they are coincident. If you have many things interacting, why not represent these interactions as a graph? Sure we can invent a metric space and embed this graph, but just as surely our choices on the lengths of lines, etc., if it is not arbitrary, should depend on the pattern of interactions: we should put groups of things that tend to interact a lot with each other near each other.

But this is the point (no pun intended): the coordinates are logically dependent on the interactions, not vice versa. Indeed, perhaps this point of view can be used to solve some of the conundrums thrown up by modern physics. If you are inducing coordinates from interactions, then large gobs of interactions cannot be arbitrarily placed: the law of large numbers kicks in, and things will be seen to have an “average” place and time with respect to the rest of the system. But presumably you have a lot more freedom in placing individual pieces.

Could this not contain the seeds of an explanation for quantum-mechanical “action at a distance”? When two particles interact, the are coincident. Where should either of them get the information that they are not coincident until one of them has another interaction not shared by the first? Our metric that statistics builds over many interactions might be a fiction when looking at just a few….

Or consider gravity: if you have a big mess of interactions, you will assign it more coordinates. Looking at this from the outside, we might say that as the probability of interacting grows larger, spacetime “bows outward” as modelled by the theory of general relativity…..


Web 2.5: analytics for the masses

The Web 2.0 is about social media. Users don’t just explore, they post and collaborate. At the same time companies have started to use sophisticated marketing to reach out to potential consumers, trying to predict who they are and what they want based on their actions and who they collaborate with.

I believe the next step will be when the broad mass of internet users start using sophisticated analytics. Instead of only reaching out click by click, sites will increasingly offer to put users in touch with each other both for business and pleasure based on predictions about their affinities.

Ironically, this is the vision of user interaction on the web that we had at Abuzz in 1996. We thought the web would be too large, sparse and untrustworthy: people needed collaborative filtering to collaborate. If I’m right now, and reaching out mediated by algorithm becomes the rage in a couple years, we will have been perhaps 18 years early. I like to think I’ve learned a few things, but on this evidence, at least, I can’t recommend any of us as stockbrokers….

Hospital, Heal Thyself

The lights blink, the bells ring. It seems like there are hundreds of things wrong with this patient. Your best team is working. The result of test after test comes in. But what is the diagnosis? You have no theory. So far, you’re just treating the symptoms.

That is the state of health of the typical hospital today. HHS collects hundreds of measurements of hospital health, but most of them catch the symptoms of broken processes. How many expensive tests do we have to run to find out that our processes are broken? How many of these tests are actually cost effective in driving change?

On the other hand, very few tests measure the overall health of the hospital — which ultimately shows up in how much healthier it makes its patients. Better would be to measure some the actual outcomes patients achieve: if someone replaces their hip so they can walk up the stairs without pain, can they walk up the stairs without pain after a year?

Then, for those outcomes that are poor, actually diagnose the problem in the processes, not just the symptoms. For this we need to measure the change in symptoms given intervenions. We need longitudinal data that correlates with operations: who was on duty, what sorts of patients were present, etc. when certain types of results or failures occurred. We need robust analytics and personel who get direct feedback and can think about the data themselves, at every level.

Apps vs Media

People who know me know that I sometimes don’t explain myself sufficiently. So it was the other day, when I asked Kamil to clean up a mockup…. To my surprise, Kamil put in a navigation bar at the top, and rearranged the display to simplify it. When I asked him why, he asked me — do you want a web app or a web site? I’ve just standardized the web site interface, so that users know what they are doing.

I told him it was supposed to be a web app, and that the prominent nav bar would be distracting. He asked me to define what I meant by a web app, vs. a web site. As this was a chat conversation, I took a few moments to search … someone else must have posted a handy definition, that I could refer to.

To my surprise, a good definition didn’t pop up. It would seem that web apps are taken to mean sites that had lots of javascript. But obviously this isn’t what Kamil was asking me to get at.

Here is my take: a web app has a state that the user takes a hand in creating, whereas on a web site, state can be mapped to “position”, in which the user explores. A site, or other media, is “there” independent of the user, whereas in an app, what is there depends on the user.

Obviously these categories are made to be subverted. Interactive stories try to allow the user to “co-create” the flow of the plot, and huge numbers of sites allow the user to create some content, if only a post or a profile. But I think these poles are useful: app — intensional, site — extensional.