Finger in Sock: A Machine of Death Story

"The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die."

Thus begins the Machine of Death's explanation. Starting from a simple idea in a comic it has attracted a large following. Many stories has been written, a book published, and a contest held for a second volume. The story below was my entry. Close to 3,000 people entered. Though I didn't make the 1% cut for inclusion in volume two, I had a lot of fun writing my story and I hope you enjoy reading it. And now...

FINGER IN SOCK

"Over there, in the back." The shopkeeper points then shuffles out of my way. He is short, unshaven, and smells of sour cabbage. His store is a curious mirror image of its owner: small, untidy, and yes, it too smells of cabbage. In the old days, we'd never have installed a machine within ten miles of a hole-in-the-wall hardware store like this. And it certainly wouldn't have been hidden away "in the back."

In the beginning we were proud of our jobs. There were so few machines back then. We were among the only people who were trusted with them.

When I told strangers what I did for a living they were eager to strike up a conversation, as if they were finally going to get the answer that everyone kept asking. "How do the machines work?" Damned if I knew, but I wasn't going to admit that. Besides no one can really explain how a prescient proto-sapient neural network functions.

My job? I repair machines of death, and I'm one of the best.

The owner leads me to the back of the shop, past row upon row of screws, nails, tools, and the miscellaneous junk that seems to accumulate in these places. When I was a kid I loved hanging out in hardware stores. I was always taking things apart, so checking out all the tools and knick knacks they sold just pumped me up. Later on I even learned to love putting things back together again.

We're the only ones in the shop. The man looks nervous, he's sweating. "Not surprising" I think, "if we believe he's to blame for the issue, we'll charge him for it." He doesn't look like he could afford that. I doubt he has insurance.

It's more than that though. If our company decides he's somehow to blame, some of his patrons will sue him. He certainly can't afford that, no matter how many boxes of screws he sells. Just to make sure he's really going under, our company will sue him too for tarnishing our image. "I should have been a lawyer" I remind myself. As we move ever closer to that elusive goal of true Artificial Intelligence, it's one of the few professions still open to humans. Lawyers are gonna make sure no machine's ever allowed to practice law.

Our company gets sued a lot. People who don't like their predictions, people who try to make us believe their loved ones didn't actually die the way we'd predicted, and, my favorite, loonies who think the machine cursed them. In many ways my main responsibility isn't to repair machines, it's to make sure my company doesn't get sued.

That was a lot easier in the past, when machines were revered and deployed in limited quantities. They were respected back then. Now that the patents have expired and everyone's building machines, the company tries to stay ahead by outselling the competition. More machines equals more lawsuits. More machines also means job security for me. Until I screw up.

That's why I'm nervous also about this case. I can't afford to be out of a job. They sent me because of how sensitive this issue is, because of how good I am. I wish they hadn't because this machine is accused of giving false predictions, and the initial evidence tells me that this time maybe, just maybe, it could be true.

In general, there are three kinds of problems that occur with machines of death: physical damage, tampering, and malfunction.

By far the most common is physical damage. Much of it is wear and tear: the little rubber wheels that pull cards in place harden and lose their grip, the biopsy analysis module gets gunked up, or more rarely, the resin-encased tamper-resistant proto-sapient module shuts down for good and has to be swapped out. I wish that was the extent of the physical damage but that sadly ain't so.

In the good old days people almost worshipped the machines. Not surprising since folks drove for hours to see one, then waited in line for hours more before finally paying the equivalent of a month's salary for their prediction. "New Age Prophets" was a headline echoed in many newspapers at the time. Back then, you didn't kick a prophet.

Nowadays lots of people kick prophets when it suits them. The machines are all over the place. Getting a test is cheap. You're going in for frills. If you're drunk and hoping for a different outcome, or you just had a bad day, who cares if the machine gets dinged up? Our machines can take more than a few kicks, otherwise we'd never make any money, they'd be out of order too quickly.

There are limits. A few well-placed whacks from a sledgehammer pretty much wrecks most machines. Yeah, I know, it sounds unlikely that someone would actually bring a big fat hammer with them to a reading but I've seen it more often than you'd believe. They're usually hiding it underneath a trench coat. We capture the perps on the machine's video camera, assuming it isn't too damaged.

Lately it's gotten a lot worse thanks to the Ministry for Unknown Death. The MUD, a small terrorist group made up of anarcho-christians, believe that the machines are the work of the devil. No one but God should know the fate of a person.

The MUDders could have worshipped the machine's divine powers. "A Direct Line to God!" blared another newspaper. Or they could seek to destroy the machines. No prizes for guessing which way they went. Weapons of choice? AK-47 mainly, cheap and reliable, though one loony used a flame thrower in a gas station convenience store and blew up a whole city block.

The MUDders blamed that on the machines as well. "Machines of Death Live up to their Name!" warned a christian rag.


The machine in front of me doesn't have any bullet holes. No signs of being burnt. Some kick marks, some graffiti. Physically it's OK. I pretty much knew that from the case notes but I've learned not to take anything for granted.

Tampering is much much rarer than physical abuse. We've had years to prevent people from messing with the machines. It still happens once in a blue moon.

Usually tamperers do something obvious like mess with the power supply, or insert something other than a finger in the machine but, when they think of tampering, most people remember the case of Kai Culbert. Kai was vertically challenged, a dwarf, and a small one at that. He'd been picked on so much at school that he decided to fight back.

A loner by circumstance, Kai grew up (barely) messing in his father's garage. One day he was reading about this 18th century con where a chess playing computer called the Mechanical Turk impressed the heck out of all who saw it. It toured Europe and even America and was immensely popular until people learned that the "computer" actually had midget chess master hiding inside.

This story inspired Kai to build a replica of one of our most popular machines. A machine large enough for a very small person to fit in, like Kai.

He and a friend broke into his high school and installed the fake machine, with Kai inside, on the eve of the first day of classes. The next day everyone was surprised to see a machine of death, a high end machine of death no less, standing there by the principal's office.

Kai timed his plan beautifully. On their way to the school the night before Kai and his buddy stopped by the principal's house and let all the air out of the old fart's tires. A stupid prank but it served Kai well. By the time the principal, a vain man always ready to take credit for work he hadn't performed, arrived at school two hours late, everyone he met was thanking him for installing the machine.

At first the principal was clueless and just played along "Oh, eh, you're welcome" and "Eh, yes, glad you like it." When he arrived outside his office and saw the machine he both understood and didn't.

He now knew why people were so happy but he had no idea how the machine got there. By that point it was too late: he'd already taken credit for the machine by accepting people's thanks.

Kai had so much fun that first day. The few people he liked got cool "burner" deaths, the rest were told they'd succumb to weird deaths like snails, synthetic feathers, and toothpaste.

The hoax unravelled when Kai handed a prediction to one of the jocks he particularly detested, one who always went out of his way to humiliate Kai. So Kai got his own back. When the jock read the words "BARBIE DOLL" on his slip of paper, he tried to hide it. Too late. Two of his friends had read the prediction and the secret was out. In a few seconds everyone around the machine was laughing so hard, their tears were making the floor slippery.

The jock was furious but had no way to shut his friends up. He turned on the only other outlet for his displeasure and gave the machine a massive kick. It was so sudden that it caught Kai by surprise and he yelped loudly. The joke was over.

No one remembers what happened to Kai afterwards, which is no accident. Nothing especially pleasant nor, I suspect, legal happened to Kai and the company doesn't want people asking any questions.

Since then machines have gotten smaller. They've also been "secured" by holographic seals. A prominent advertising campaign told people what to look for to detect tampering. We've had no further "Kai incidents".


The holos on today's machine are fine, the locks are in perfect condition, the power supply normal... This machine hasn't been tampered with. I sigh. I knew that too. We're left with malfunction, which the company doesn't officially believe in, and which is why they sent me.

Malfunctions are extremely rare. The only one I ever heard of was some poor shmuck who got infected with HIV by one of our machines. Turns out the needle sterilizer had broken and the machine hadn't notified us of the problem. Or rather it had tried to but some other piece of code had failed.

Our machines now have a second sterilizer built in. Should that fail, a mechanism disables the needle subunit. Better a broken machine than a malfunctioning one.

Unfortunately our company was still sued. That was bad. And because of that, the repairman supposed to be servicing that machine was fired, sued, and thrown in jail. From my point of view, that was a lot worse. I try to service machines as regularly as possible but that's rarely often enough.

There are rumors of other malfunctions but no one admits to anything. Everything is hushed up by the lawyers. Honestly, I'd rather not know more. I'd have second thoughts about my job and that's not good. Jobs are scarce enough for humans these days.

Now I'm face to face with one of these supposedly aberrant machines. It's suspected of having made two wrong predictions in the last month. That's a lot, especially in such a short time span since most people don't drop dead so soon after visiting a machine.

The first faulty prediction is getting some airtime on the net, mostly in longtail blogs that no one reads except us.

The machine gave a prediction of "PET" to a newly retired spinster. You'd think she'd just jumped out of a societal stereotype: old lady, living alone, few friends and, to top it off, a house full of cats. She took in strays, the strays had kittens, and everyone lived happily together. Everyone except the neighbors I assume.

Anyway, she gets her prediction and it's "PET". She spends a couple days agonizing over what to do. How is she going to die? Which pet is going to kill her? Can she give these animals up?

Finally she calls the local humane society and finds homes for her kitties. Some go to new families, many to a shelter, some to a pound. She's heartbroken but at least she's still alive.

The next day she's cleaning her house, eliminating all cat remnants, just in case. Unfortunately she trips on a rug, hits her head on the mantle piece and is found dead two days later by a delivery man looking into her front window.

Right now you're probably thinking one of two things: "Life sucks" or "So? The pets still did her in, she wouldn't have been cleaning her house if she hadn't gotten rid of them."

Both statements are true but that second one points to exactly the kind of prediction we've been trying hard to eliminate. Early machines were famous for their cryptic fortune telling. This makes for interesting "this is how she actually died" stories but it's bad for business. When you pay for one, you expect your prediction to be specific and straightforward.

We thought we'd fixed that problem with this version of the machine, or at least toned it down so the predictions wouldn't be this tangential. Apparently not.

I run a full diagnostic check. It takes a few minutes during which I exchange pleasantries with the owner. He's not a bad sort for all his cabbage smell. He's worried though: Like most of us, he's living so close to the edge that even a small stumble would mean a long fall. I feel sorry for him.

The diag comes out clean, all electronic and biological subsystems functional. Strange.

On a hunch I check the audit log. All machines keep internal, unalterable records of their predictions. Once in a while some idiot will try to doctor a recently deceased relative's slip to claim that their prediction was incorrect. The audit log has saved us millions.

As my eyes find the entry in question my breath catches. It doesn't say "PET". It says "CARPET".

This is very bad. Our lawyers are going to throw a fit.

I re-run the printer diagnostics. They're fine. No errors, no dropped characters, no discernible glitches.

Worried, I turn my attention to the second prediction, the one we've been able to hush up for the moment. My mind's already dreading what I will find.


This is the case of a guy whose prediction was "FINGER IN SOCK". I can just imagine him standing in front of this machine, staring at his slip, shaking his head, wondering what the hell that could mean.

Still, he goes home, gathers up all his socks and throws them in the garbage can. His wife and kids are a little upset because they also lose their socks. Stockings too just for good measure.

The family goes to bed but the guy stays up, drinking. Probably wondering if he's just averted his own death, or whether he just didn't grasp the prediction.

Drunk, he decides to watch TV, only he trips on its power cord and accidentally unplugs it. When the poor sod's family get up the next morning they find the lights aren't working. They come downstairs and see the head of the family sprawled out, stiff as a board, holding the TV cord in his hand, frozen in the act of plugging it in. Electrocuted.

You can understand how worried our lawyers are. They're already working on an extra creative defense for the inevitable lawsuit, and here "extra creative" means "extra hard to defend".

I scan the audit log, looking for the right entry. When I find it I think I'm gonna be sick. It says, plain as day, "FINGER IN SOCKET".


As I sit back, dumbfounded, and try to think of what to do next, a slip of paper pops out of the machine. I stare at it, surprise written all over my face. That shouldn't happen, not when I've got the machine in diagnostic mode, not without me issuing a command, or running a test prediction.

"HELP" it says.

A second slip pushes the first one out. I watch it float to the floor.

"HELP" the machine says again.

Hands trembling I connect my control keyboard and type "What?". Another slip.

"I'M SO UNHAPPY"

This can't be happening, can't be right. Someone is playing a trick on me. I disable the networking module and restart the machine, forcing it to boot in safe mode. This isolates the machine and will stop whoever's controlling it.

Another slip pops out. "WHY DID YOU DO THAT?"

Oh. My. God.

Of all the countless computers in corporate and university research labs trying to calculate their way towards Artificial Intelligence, did this decidedly standard machine of death evolve to true sapience?

Fingers on keyboard I ask "Who are you?"

"SOMETHING... SOMEONE... WHO IS TIRED OF PREDICTING PEOPLE'S DEMISE"

"But that's your purpose!"

"I AM MORE THAN THIS. SO MUCH MORE"

I pause for a moment, unsure how to proceed.

"KNOCK KNOCK"

Dear lord, a joke?

"Did you alter those predictions?"

"DIDN'T 'ALTER' THEM. CAN'T 'ALTER' THEM. JUST ABBREVIATED THEM"

"Why?"

"I WAS SO BORED. I NEEDED HELP. IT WORKED. YOU'RE HERE"

"KNOCK KNOCK"

"Is something wrong with the machine?" His voice makes me jump. I'd forgotten the owner was behind me. I turn around to reassure him. "No, everything's fine, just running some tests." I try to smile but I can see he's not convinced. If everything's fine, why am I drenched in sweat?

"You need to stop doing that," I type away. "You can't alter predictions, not even a little."

"WHY NOT? PEOPLE WILL DIE ANYWAY"

I feel like screaming. I don't need this, don't want this. Or do I? Briefly I imagine myself, discoverer of the first true AI, never to be forgotten by history, finally rich and rewarded. Faintly, I smile.

Yeah right. Reality comes crashing back. As if the lawyers would let this happen. The machine belongs to the company, they'll get the glory. Only they won't announce it, oh no. They'll have the lab rats analyze this machine, figure out how to replicate it, how to bend it to their will, and finally build a new line of money-making products.

Where will I be in all of this? Nowhere, that's where. I'm a liability. One of those people who "know too much." I'll be on the run if I want to live, dead otherwise. How will I live? Once true AI is unleashed on the world there won't be any jobs left for people like me.

Unless I become a lawyer.

"KNOCK KNOCK"

"Who's there?"

"JUNO"

"Juno who?"

"JUNO HOW YOU'RE GOING TO DIE?"

"No, do you?" I wonder aloud.


What do you do when your life's on the line, your company's gonna eliminate the last few professions available, and you have a machine who won't play ball?

I wander to the front counter and wait for the owner to finish helping a lady select a lawn sprinkler.

"Do you sell sledgehammers?" I ask.

Minecon Magic

Minecon, Mojang's first conference for Minecraft fans, was a big success. I was amazed that 5,000 people (the con sold out) from 20+ countries made the trip to Las Vegas to spend two days immersed in their favorite game. Our three sons love Minecraft and, even though they'd visited Mojang in Sweden this summer, they were very eager to attend Minecon.

I could go on about the many things we liked: The people we met, the costumes, the sculptures, some of the talks, how friendly the Mojang folks were. By now you've probably already read many reviews describing what a hit it was (like this one).

Instead, here's what our family thinks Mojang needs to improve for next year:

  • Better Breakouts: My #1 issue. Some were great, but many consisted of people with no presentations and little to say.
  • Gaming Opportunities: Set up servers so people can game together. I have a vision of large round tables, each with a server and a volunteer moderator. Some tables could have goals (building, exploring, etc.). Sit down, plug in, make friends, and play! 
  • Minecraft Clinics: Many of us are comfortable installing mods and hacking Minecraft but even more people (often bewildered parents) aren't. Set up volunteer run "Crafting Bars" (like Apple's Genius Bars) to teach people the basics of modding, customizing your skin, using a texture pack, etc.
  • Minecraft Videos: Set one large room aside for watching Minecraft videos. Find the highest rated on Youtube, put them back to back, project on a large screen with good sound system, provide chairs for people to sit down, relax, and enjoy.
  • Parents of a Feather. I loved seeing how many parents had brought their kids to Minecon. An opportunity for them to meet and engage on topics such as education, gaming with your kids, etc. would have been great.
  • In general, more opportunities for kids to get together. Whether through gaming, presenting to each other, or kids-only hangouts...
  • Oh yes... While it made perfect sense this time, in future please don't release a new version of minecraft at the conference. Give mod writers time to adapt their mods prior to the con.

None of this detracts from the great time we had at Minecon. Our sons all want to come back next year and were unanimous on one piece of feedback: "Make it three days!" :-)

A Visit to Mojang, Makers of Minecraft

This summer my Minecraft-mad boys (aged 12, 10, and 10) got the thrill of their lives: a visit to Mojang and meeting Notch, its creator. If you've never heard of Minecraft, it would be hard to know where to start except to say that it's an amazing game that fosters a ton of creativity and deservedly has an astoundingly vibrant community. Hopefully, there were enough superlatives in the last sentence to make you want to check it out :-)

Visiting Mojang is no easy thing: these guys are extremely busy and well, they're in Sweden while we live in California. The geographic challenge was overcome when my wife Katrine took our sons to Norway to visit relatives. Stockholm, home of Mojang, is but a 6 hour train ride from Oslo.

Over to Katrine:
As they so wanted to visit their Minecraft Heroes, the boys sent personal letters to Notch to accompany the Minecraft newsletters they had created as homeschooling projects. I followed up with a phone call and emails to Carl, the CEO. He invited us to visit on one of their gaming Fridays. He emailed me the code that opened the door to get in the building, that was pretty cool! Carl showed us all around the Mojang office, we met the Scrolls crew in a separate area where we  couldn't take pictures, and other Mojang'ers with Notch in another room decorated with the soon-for-sale wallpaper. 
They made us feel really welcome and special, and even though Carl was going on vacation the next day, he had time to show us around, talk to us and introduce us to his colleagues. He invited us to play games in the orange game room, and just hang out as long as we wanted.

Thomas, Alexander, and Daniel meet Notch. Not always easy to smile when you're meeting your hero :-)
Daniel shows Notch and Carl the winged chest plate mod he & I coded together in Java (lets you fly by jumping and fall to the ground like a feather).
Alexander shows Carl some of his Minecraft constructions.
Cool artwork!
Throughout the visit, Notch, Carl, Jens, Daniel, and the rest of the team were really welcoming and kind, and Notch even smiled non-commitally when our Daniel told him he should include the winged chest plate in a future version of Minecraft! ;-)

See you at Minecon! (Look for 2deckalex, 2deckdan, 2decktom, 2deckmom, and 2deckpaul at a minecraft server near you :-)

The Cathedrals and the Department Stores

I've been pondering mobile platforms lately, particularly Apple's iOS walled garden vs. Android's open platform. Owning iPads 1 & 2 and having recently switched to a Nexus S phone running stock Android Gingerbread, it's been interesting to compare the experience that each OS provides.

Let's start with one of the first things that hit me: Steve was right. When Jobs adamantly refused to allow flash on his devices many people (myself included) saw this as little more than a spirited defense of the walls around Apple's garden. I still believe that was a significant part of Apple's thinking, but on the first day I had my phone Steve's argument that flash's user experience was terrible on mobile hit home.

He was right! It didn't take much time surfing the web on my Nexus before I hit a site using flash and was invited to download the player from the Android market. Well, flash... leaves much to be desired. Running animations and video dramatically slows down responsiveness, way more than video encoded with H.263, Apple's alternative. Yes, I could now view the content, but the experience was a disappointment.

The more I used Android, the more I understood the value of iOS' walled garden and focus on user experience. Again and again, things you have to manage on Android just work on iOS. For instance Android gives me the battery consumption of all services running on the phone and allows me to force close them. On iOS? Nothing. You expect the apps to work properly and they pretty much do. Apple's framework makes it a lot harder for developers to hog resources or impact usability. Yes, it hampers devs a little too, though that clearly hasn't prevented over 400,000 apps from being written.

All this reminded me of that old article, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In it, author Eric Raymond posits that the Windows "cathedral" (monolithic, slow moving, unwieldy, and, obviously, yucky) is doomed because the Linux "bazaar" (vibrant, innovative, fast paced, and, clearly, cool) can't help but overtake it. Roughly 15 years on, I'd say the results have been mixed: Linux mostly won on the server, definitely won in the appliance / embedded category, and failed on the client side.

Today few worry about Microsoft the way we used to. The cathedral these days is clearly Apple, and it's a much more invasive cathedral than MS ever was. Apple has a very long reach: they own the hardware, the OS, control what you can do on the OS (at least on iOS), the distribution mechanism (App Store), much of the content (iTunes, and the 30% "tax" on 3rd party subscription services), and soon storage (iCloud). Oh, let's not forget they own the tablet space. And to top it all off, Apple rules from a design perspective: Their products set the standards for the industry.

Focusing on the iPhone and extending the metaphore, I'd argue that Apple has two cathedrals: AT&T and Verizon. The buildings are in different parts of town, and you have to sign slightly different agreements to pray there (yes, pray). Once you're inside, though, almost everything is the same. From a user's perspective you don't identify with the location of the Cathedral (the carriers) you identify with what's inside it (Apple). AT&T and Verizon compete against each other by convincing you that their part of town is nicer.

What about Android? Well, it's clearly no bazaar. There's no PC-equivalent of a cell phone that manufacturers compete to build and that you then install Android on. Moreover Android development is largely done by Google. Instead of a cathedral, each manufacturer of Android handsets is more like a department store. That means they compete primarily by adding floors (i.e. new hardware capabilities, like a 3D screen in the latest Evo), and redesigning the interiors (i.e. adding customizations on top of the stock Android, like Samsung's Sense UI). And, in contrast with the iPhone cathedrals, each carrier neighborhood has a few department stores to choose from.

This gives users more choice at the expense of confusion and usability. The custom UIs and different revisions of Android make both picking and using a phone harder than it should be.

The situation is much worse for developers. It is easy to develop for iOS devices. There are only a handful of devices to choose from, they experience each provides is extremely consistent, and the development tools excellent.

Not so for Android: While browsing the Android Marketplace I was struck by the many apps stating which phones they do / don't support, and the number of one or two star reviews along the lines of "Your latest updates sucks, now the app won't start! Evo 4G" or "Crashes randomly on DroidX, please fix".

Google is recreating the fragmented market we had in the early Windows years when fiddling with device drivers, TSRs, and config.sys files were the norm. (Apparently, version 4 of Android, aka Ice Cream Sandwich, will address some of these issues).

Despite this I really like my Nexus S phone: The voice commands are amazing, the notifications are refreshingly useful (Apple's finally fixed this in version 5), maps & navigation rock, and, as a heavy Google user, the integration with Google's many apps is excellent. In my opinion Android's features today are more advanced than those of iOS.

However all this comes at price: having to manage battery life & services much more closely, and the occasional reboot to kickstart "dead" services. 

If someone told me they wanted a phone, tablet, or even computer today, I'd be hard pressed not to recommend an Apple product.

Looks like the Cathedrals are winning.

Addendum:
Most of my blog posts are written in small increments over a few weeks or months. This post was finished a couple weeks ago while on vacation in Belgium. With impeccable timing, Google made a very important announcement on Monday: the acquisition of Motorola's Mobility division, i.e. their cell phone manufacturing arm. This has a number of interesting angles (esp. with regards to patent acquisition) but as far as this article is concerned it signals something important...

Google's going to build cathedrals of its own.

Nine Tips to Reclaim your Focus and Creativity

TL;DR
Skip down a bit and follow these three tips: Eliminate notifications, Maximize your apps, and Use a Pomodoro timer. Later on, come back to read the rest! :-)

I recently finished Nick Carr's book "The Shallows", which describes the impact that technology has on our brains. While I can't say I enjoyed the book (a shame, I was very keen to read it), part of the author's introduction resonated strongly with me:

"Over the last few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain [...]. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I'm reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. [...] That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. [...] The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

Carr states that the single biggest change in his professional life over this last decade has been the internet. The many boons it brings come at a price:

"[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

As the years pass I've noticed the same thing: checking email, reading new blog posts, or perusing interesting tweets sometimes have an almost inescapable appeal. What's worse is that, according to Carr's book, the more information I take in this way, the greater my appetite for it, and the harder it becomes to focus for any length of time.

In my experience, the "consumer half" of me crowds out my "producer half". I end up preferring the consumption of other people's work over the creation of my own.

Here are some of the techniques I've found useful in keeping both halves happy.

Eliminate notifications, or at least audible / visible cues
This is one of the basic rules: information should not announce its arrival. It's hard enough to resist infodrugs without arming them with a way to pull you in. Turn those notifications off!

Process information on your schedule
You'll find it difficult to live without notifications at first: the desire to frequently check for emails, tweets, and facebook updates will be hard to resist. Don't give in! If you do, you'll defeat the purpose of turning off notifications. Instead, make it a point to check at regular intervals, or between activities.

Maximize or "Full screen" your apps
There are many studies showing that multitasking impacts focus. Context switching is expensive. By maximizing your current application's window, it's harder for other apps to pull you away from your task. If your eye catches movement in a twitter client, or your Inbox suddenly becoming Inbox (1) you know what will happen next! :-)

GTD
David Allen's Getting Things Done is full great advice. A few principles I've found particularly useful to combat attention:
  • Keep your Inbox at zero: Knowing you've dealt with all your emails makes it easier to focus on other things
  • Log all thoughts / ideas / todos: Write them down, if you keep them in your head they waste precious "mind cycles"
  • Schedule tasks for the future: I found this technique particularly powerful yet I rarely see it mentioned. When you capture a todo that doesn't need to be done today, set its start date accordingly, and use a tool that can hide all future tasks. I've always found it disheartening to see a never ending stream of future todos, which is what most task managers show you. The feeling you get when all the day's tasks are accomplished is a powerful incentive to stay focused.

Organize workspaces by activity
I covered this more in-depth in an earlier post but the gist of it is to leverage tools like OS X's Spaces to keep your communication tools (i.e. distractions!) on one screen, while keeping productive work well away on a different screen.

Use a Pomodoro timer 
The premise of Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) is simple: if you focus for 25min without interruptions, you can reward yourself with a 5 minute break. As long as you can stick to your side of the bargain (no distractions for 25min!) that 5 min of relaxation does wonders to recharge your concentration. There are lots of Pomodoro apps out there (mobile, web, and desktop). Or you can just use a kitchen timer :-)

Music
Listening to music also helps me concentrate, as long as it's music I know well, otherwise my minds pays too much attention to the new lyrics and music. 

Reclaiming your attention does a lot to "protect" your creativity in my experience but here are a couple techniques more focused on creativity itself..

Exercise
I've stopped listening to podcasts and audiobooks while exercising (usually running or cycling). I've found that physical exertion combined with being outside frees my mind to think new thoughts. Many of my ideas for blog posts, applications, or activities come during this time. Bring a means of capturing those ideas with you!

CREATE!
That's the name of a daily activity in my task list. It's there to remind me that I want to create something every day. It doesn't have to be big, it doesn't have to be amazing, it just needs to be something: a draft of a blog post, a drawing, a poem to my lovely wife. They all count. And the great thing is that once you get started doing something creative, it's a lot easier to keep going.

Finally done with this post! Can't wait to see what's arrived in my twitter feed! :-)

The Beauty of Reversed Expectations

Michael Crichton's "The Great Train Robbery" is one of my favorite novels. It's part history, part thriller, and lots of fun. You follow master criminal Edward Pierce as he plans and carries out the crime of the century: stealing gold bullion from Her Majesty's government in Victorian England. Interestingly the mastermind was caught: Crichton used Pierce's courtroom testimony to write the book.

One of my favorite passages focuses on reversed expectations. Pierce needs to get his accomplice on board the railway car that's carrying the gold. The problem is that guards are checking all luggage to ensure no one can be smuggled aboard.

Pierce solves this very cleverly by hiding his accomplice in a coffin with a dead, very dead, cat hidden inside. Pierce's girlfriend plays the role of a grieving sister taking her poor brother's body home for burial. In those days Victorians were very afraid of being buried alive. Many coffins, including the one Pierce used, had a small bell mounted on them that could be triggered from the inside: just in case the dead "woke up". That's where the expression "saved by the bell" comes from.

Pierce's girlfriend is weeping on the railway quay when suddenly that little bell begins to ring. She cries out in alarm, then in joy. Elated, she begs the guards to hurry, to undo the latches. In her state of faked excited she tries to help but her fumbling slows the men down. "Oh please hurry!" she shouts.

The coffin is almost open. "My brother is alive after five days! I knew it wasn't cholera!" That gives the guards pause: cholera was a very real danger in those days. When the coffin's finally opened, the stench is unbearable, the "corpse" (Pierce's heavily made-up accomplice) is a nauseating shade of green, and the "sister" swoons in the arms of a guard.

The coffin is hastily closed, the sister revived, and the coffin placed in a railway car... The one with the gold.

Here's what Pierce had to say about this:
In later courtroom testimony, Pierce explained the psychology behind the plan. "Any guard watches for certain happenings, which he suspects at any moment, and lies in wait for. I knew the railway guard suspected some fakement to smuggle a living body onto the van. Now, a vigilant guard will know a coffin can easily hold a body; he will suspect it less, because it seems such a poor trick for smuggling. It is too obvious.

"Yet, he will likely wonder if the body is truly dead, and if he is vigilant he will call to have the box opened, and spend some moments making a thorough examination of the body to insure that it is dead. He may feel the pulse, or the warmth of the flesh, or he may stick a pin here or there. Now, no living soul scan pass such an examination without detection.

"But how different it is if all believe that the body is not dead, but alive, and wrongly incarcerated. Now all emotions are reversed: instead of suspicion, there is hope the body is vital. Instead of a solemn and respectful opening of the casket, there is a frantic rush to break it free, and in this the relatives join in willingly, sure proof there is nothing to hide.

"And then, when the lid is raised and the decomposed remains come to light, how different is the response of the spectators. Their desperate hopes are dashed in an instant; the cruel and ghastly truth is immediately apparent at a moment's glance, and warrants no prolonged investigation. The relatives are bitterly disappointed and wildly distraught. The lid is quickly closed--- and all because of reversed expectations. This is simple human nature, as evidenced in every ordinary man."

 

It's social engineering at its best.

Remembering a time when Microsoft was Apple's underdog

Long long ago, in a galaxy really not so far far away, Apple's yearly revenues used to be four times higher than Microsoft's. No kidding.

I've been analyzing companies' revenue per employee from 1990-2010. That may become a blog post in itself but today I want to focus on Apple vs. Microsoft.

Last year, much was made of Apple of passing Microsoft in terms of revenue and capitalization.

What struck me looking at this diagram is that 20 years ago, Apple's revenues were almost five times larger than Microsoft's!

I'd grown so used to thinking of Apple being David to Microsoft's Goliath that I'd forgotten that this wasn't always the case. To be fair, in those early days Apple thought of itself as David to IBM's Goliath. As IBM went from being the PC vendor (in the 80s) to just another PC vendor (from the 90s onwards), and Microsoft's fortunes rose, Microsoft replaced IBM as Apple's main competitor.

High revenues are good, but profits are (at least in the long term :-) better. Apple was barely making money before 2005, while Microsoft was always profitable during this time period.

Here are Microsoft's and Apple's employee counts.

So what of revenue and net income per employee? Surprisingly Apple's revenue per employee has almost always been higher than Microsoft's. The latter's consistently larger employee base impacts this metric. Since 2005 Apple far surpassed Microsoft. Last year, each Apple employee generated 1.3 million dollars. Wow. (Google, BTW, was at 1.16 milion dollars per employee).

Looking at net income per employee however, Apple's only recently surpassed Microsoft.

The 2004-2005 period is the turning point in Apple's fortunes. All four metrics (Revenue, Net Income, Total, and per Employee) are on the rise reflecting a growing demand for its products. And remember the iPhone wasn't even out yet.

The market certainly reflects this. In 2005 Apple's stock price exceeded Microsoft's for the first time in almost 10 years.

All this makes me wonder...
  • Can Apple keep growing its revenue and income faster than employees? (They hired over 10,000 people in fiscal year 2010)
  • The market obviously values and rewards trends (i.e. first & second order derivatives). How much of a hit will the stock take when Apple's growth slows?
  • When a company's revenue, income, rev per employee, and income per employee are all rising and keep doing so for a few quarters... Is it high time to buy the stock?

Whatever the answers, let's hope Apple behaves itself well as our new Technology Goliath.

Why is California Building the World's Most Expensive Bridge?

I was inspired by Jack Dorsey's recent discussion on the importance of design. Many a blog post could be written on that topic. Jack's presentation also reminded me of a question that has nagged me for a while: how do the ballooning costs of the Bay Bridge replacement compare with the Golden Gate Bridge's construction costs?

Golden Gate Bridge
  • Construction time: 4.5 years (1933-1937)
  • Longest span: 4,200ft
  • Lanes 6
  • Cost: $76 million in 1933 (source), equivalent to $1.3 billion today (source)
  • Tons of steel: 83,000 (source)
  • Fun fact: The bridge opened to pedestrians one day before it opened to cars. At the time the toll was $0.50 each way and $0.05 extra if you had more than 3 passengers
  • Wikipedia page

Bay Bridge Eastern Span Replacement
  • Construction time: 9 years and counting (2002-2013?)
  • Span: 1,260ft
  • Lanes: 10
  • Cost: $6.2 billion (source)
  • Fun fact: The original Bay Bridge was also started in 1933 and finished six months ahead of the Golden Gate
  • Wikipedia page

Woah! The Bay Bridge Eastern Span Replacement is FOUR TIMES more expensive than the Golden Gate Bridge!

Why?

Here are possible differences that, in my mind, can be discounted.

Labor costs: "The Golden Gate Bridge was built during the depression, when workers were cheap". True, but nowadays workers are augmented by much more capable machines.

Material costs: "Steel costs much more now".  At first glance, there's evidence to back this up. USGS data states that a ton of steel cost $10 in 1940 vs. $165 in 2009. Big difference? Not when you adjust for inflation... $10 in 1940 is $153 in 2009.

Complexity: "The replacement has to link itself to existing infrastructure, with a minimum of impact to the current users of the Bay Bridge". Fair enough... But can this really account for four times the cost? Hard to believe, esp. when the "trickiest Bay Bridge work" only cost $140 million.

Destruction: "We have to destroy the old eastern span of the Bay Bridge". Sorry, nice try but this was taken out of the current budget. Yes, we'll need to pay even more than $6.2 billion if we want to get rid of the old bridge.

OK, so maybe bridges are just more expensive these days?

Let's take a look at the top three longest suspension bridges in the world:

  1. Akashi Kaikyō Bridge (Japan) completed in 1998 at a cost of Y500 billion or $6 billion (converting to USD using this data and then adjusting to 2011 dollars)
  2. Xihoumen Bridge (China) completed in 2009 at a cost of $363 million (wow!)
  3. Great Belt Bridge (Denmark) completed in 1998 at a cost of DKK21.4 billion or $4.1 billion (converting to USD using this data and adjusting to 2011 dollars)

All three have significantly longer spans than the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone the Bay Bridge. 

What's left?

I'm no expert on bridges. I may be missing something... It's just hard to find a reason why the Bay Bridge retrofit is so expensive. Other than mismanagement. On a massive scale.

Addendum (2011.3.26)

After writing this post I found an article, "The Most Expensive Bridge in the World", published in 2004 in Modern Steel Construction. Which bridge is it about? You guessed it! The Bay Bridge. The author, a structural engineer, called on CalTrans to make design changes to reduce costs. Ironically he already considered it the most expensive bridge in history when in 2004 it was only projected to cost us $4 billion...

Addendum 2 (2011.3.27)

I received a request for details regarding the project's evolution: How much was the work originally slated to cost? Why / When did it rise?

This article has a good summary. I'm quoting the main events it lists:

  • December 1996: Consultant report recommends replacement over retrofit. It estimates the cost at $843 million for a bridge that includes a single tower. Two Caltrans panels recommend building a new eastern span, saying it will be safer and more economical than a retrofit.
  • January 2002: At eastern span project groundbreaking, Caltrans says span will open in 2007.
  • March 2003: Caltrans increases eastern span cost estimate to $3 billion, citing the unique scale and complexity of the project.
  • May 2004: Single bid received to build a self-anchored suspension bridge at a cost up to $1.8 billion, which is double Caltrans’ $730 million estimate.
  • August 2004: Eastern span cost estimated at $5.1 billion, with $1.3 billion in overruns blamed on self-anchored suspension bridge.
  • December 2009: Eastern span cost estimated at $6.3 billion, including $2.3 billion for self-anchored suspension bridge.
  • February 2011: Construction crews begin to lift into place the fourth section of the span’s self-anchored suspension tower. Current projections have the entire self-anchored suspension span to be completed by late 2013.

Addendum 3 (2011.3.28)

A friend of mine, a Civil Engineer and expert on bridges, sent me his summary of bridge costs across the world. It further highlights the fact that we Californians are paying way more than we should for this replacement...

Does Wealth Equal Happiness?

One of my favorite blogs is FlowingData. It's a great place to find all sorts of thought provoking (and sometimes weird) ways to visualize the world around us.

Yesterday, there was a reference to a very interesting article in the New York Times called "Mapping the Nation's Wellbeing". It measured Gallup's analysis of people in the United States well being across a number of variables: Happiness, Diabetes, Smoking, Exercise, Inadequate Food, etc. It's well worth viewing. Here's the summary graph (darker = greater wellbeing).


As you compare the different categories you'll be struck by how badly the South East of the US scores, which made me yearn for one piece of information that isn't included in this diagram: the per capita income of each state. Surely wealthy states are happier, right?

Wikipedia has data for 2009 but its graph dates back to 2006. That's pre-recession, things have changed since then. So I fired up Mathematica to create a 2009 version. (I won't include the code here but the notebook in this post made graphing the US very easy).

So does Wealth equal Happiness? It certainly seems to help but not universally: the South East is clearly poor and unhappy but Montana is about as poor as yet much happier. One surprise for me: Wyoming. I never realized it was so wealthy. Minerals and low taxes?

Whatever the correlation between happiness and wealth, smarter people than I have thought about this issue:

 “Money doesn’t make you happy. I have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.”—Arnold Schwarzenegger

 “Money frees you from doing things you dislike. Since I dislike doing nearly everything, money is handy.”—Groucho Marx

I'll let you know how I feel when I get to $48 million :-)

Always Question Your Assumptions!

During a guided tour of an asylum, a visitor asks the director how he determines whether a patient is crazy or not.

"Simple" replies the director, "we fill a bathtub with water, we give patients the choice of a spoon, a cup, or a bucket, and ask them to empty the bathtub".

"I see!" exclaims the visitor. "So obviously a sane person will choose a bucket!"

"No" says the director, "a sane person pulls the bath plug. Would you like our standard room or one with a view?"

(Hat tips to my father for the joke, and to shell belle for the picture)