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September 30 2009

Would you choose to live a great life or achieve great things?

by Hang

The devil appears to you in a dream one night and offers you a glimpse of two life paths you could go down:

In one, you meet the person of your dreams and it’s love at first sight. You manage to land a satisfying and decently paid job that allows you to settle down and live a comfortable life with enough left over for small indulgences. You raise a family which, while sometimes trying, is full of love and support. At your work, your ambition slowly peters out and you settle into a comfortable, middle ranking role and focus your energies on family, hobbies and your local community. You & your partner both grow old together in largely robust health and get to see your grandchildren grow up before gently passing away in each others arms.

In the other life, you see yourself accomplishing things that have significant positive impact upon many people. You’re definitely not a household name but your deeds & reputation are well known and admired among those who you consider your peers. However, this comes at a great sacrifice. Early on in life, you abandon any semblance of a social life and you die never having known love. The stress of your ambition leads you to indulge in self-destructive behaviors and this takes a toll on both your mental and physical health. You frequently suffer from bouts of deep depression and doubting which is made all the more difficult as you have no close confidantes with who you can share your pain. You end up dying in your late middle age due to the excessive toll on your body, still wondering if you’ve done anything worthwhile in the world. However, the general public over the ensuing decades hails your achievements as having been a great contribution to society.

Which of these paths do you choose?

September 10 2009

A real case of an evil genius

by Hang

Evil Geniuses are so rare that it’s still surprising when one actually surfaces. In this case, the plot is so deviously brilliant I can’t do anything but heartily applaud it. I’ll let The Guardian take over from here:

The women were led to believe they were being filmed for a Big Brother-type television programme, according to the Dogan news agency and other news reports. Instead, their naked images were sold on the internet by their captors.

They were made to sign a contract which stipulated that they could have no contact with their families or the outside world, and would have to pay a fine of 50,000 Turkish lira (£20,000) if they left the show in the first two months, the agency reported.

She said the women were not abused or harassed sexually, but that they were told to fight each other, to wear bikinis and to dance by the villa’s pool.

August 30 2009

Software misengineering

by Hang

Does any other discipline have problems establishing the basics of competency in the same way that software engineering does? Starting from Imran, to Reginald Braitwaite, to Jeff Atwood and now to Richard Banks, the story of FizzBuzz has become mildly famous among the circle of software programmers. What is it about the profession of programming in particular that allows for such stunning incompetence to be masked for so long?

Are there professional athletes who are unable to walk? Are there professional accountants who cannot do math? Are there professional postmodern english lit professors who occasionally let slip with a comprehensible sentence? I’d like to have some insightful insight at this point but the sheer lucridity of it has me baffled.

I’ve mentioned previously that the reason this company is named Bumblebee Labs is from a term I coined:

A bumblebee is an occurrence which cannot be explained by our current theory and thus, demands special attention. Bumblebees are the keys to uncovering areas where our understanding of the world drastically fail and how we can construct a better theory to explain what is happening.

and the FizzBuzz paradox is a Bumblebee of the highest order.

Just once, I’d like to hear the FizzBuzz story from the other side. I’d like to hear a veteran software engineer, confirmed to have been working on multiple projects and with largely positive references explain how he managed to fool so many people for so long about his basic competency in programming. Does this person know that they’re a bad programmer or are they suffering from a severe case of Dunning-Kreuger? How does knowing that you’re a fraud every single day weigh upon your psyche? How do your team mates treat you?

Sure, there are many other fields in which blatant frauds continue to go unexposed for many years: art, academia, holistic medicine, cult leaders etc. But everyone knows that fraud is endemic in these fields. Sure, there are fields in which people are completely self delusional about their ability: music, writing, acting. But everyone else knows those people are crap and never let them do anything of significance. Software Engineering shouldn’t be like those field. It should be like every other respectable, solid career. And yet it’s not.. why?

August 17 2009

Introduce yourselves

by Hang

One of the hardest things about writing this blog is the feeling of talking into a void. I know there are people out there reading it because I can see the analytics data but it still feels lonely writing. So I’m going to experiment with a semi-regular feature where you, the readers respond.

Post a comment with how you found out about this blog, why you read it and also if there’s any particular area you’d like me to cover more.

As an added incentive , I’ll be donating 25 cents to charity for every person that responds. If you feel particularly strongly about any one charity, put that also in the comments.

August 5 2009

The Dream Job

by Hang

The Dream Job is so simple I’m wondering why I’ve never heard anyone propose it before.

I’m going to start off describing The Dream Job by the most inconsequential and most easily changed details because, well… you’ll see.

The Dream Job pays one million dollars per year and only one is offered every year. Every application for The Dream Job must be made public. Once you’re hired, the only power the employer has over you is firing you. That’s it, those are the only overt constraint for The Dream Job, everything else flows from there.

You don’t apply for The Dream Job by sending in a resume. Well… you could but you’re not likely to get it. There’s only 1 Dream Job a year, you need to dazzle. The Dream Job is only for people who first of all love that company very very much but that love is tinged with a deep channel of ambivalence. It’s for people who are driven with the desire that this company, while great, could be so much greater if they could only fix this one thing and you are the right person to fix it.

I would be deeply, deeply tempted if Newegg offered The Dream Job (There are a half dozen other companies with which I would apply for a Dream Job without hesitation but I’m holding those closer to the chest as they’re related to stuff I’m actually working on). Classic usability isn’t even my field anymore but The UI behind online computer buying has essentially remained static since the mid 90’s and every time I want to purchase a computer online, it makes me deeply angry that the user experience is still so poor from a pure usability standpoint. I have so many ideas bursting in my about how you could revolutionize the user interface to make it orders of magnitude more productive and fitting with the tasks that people have. Give me a week to prepare and an hour to present to Newegg and I’m utterly confident I could convince them hiring me at a million dollars a year would be a bargain. Here’s a simple idea Newegg: Build a braindead reliable text parser so that I can paste the shopping cart from any other web store and you can tell me how much identical or similar items would cost at Newegg. Why should price comparing systems be a laborious half hour of hunting for equivilant components on multiple sites when some simple engineering could reduce it down to seconds?I managed to come up with 8 other ideas inside of an hour before I got bored at how easy it was.

The Dream Job is not for everybody. The freedom offered by it sounds alluring but when you consider the full implications of it, can also be slightly terrifying. Once you get in, you can do literally whatever the hell you want but that also means not a single person will actually know what you do until you sell them on it. By definition, you’re hired to do something at that company that’s never been considered before so you’re starting off with nobody obligated to give you the time of day. It’s up to you to build up the support within the company and selling people on your vision or your mission is dead before it’s even born. There’s a reason why a company full of otherwise smart people hasn’t been able to see a problem that’s so obvious to you and it most probably stems from a complete difference in cultures. You need to be not only a visionary but also an anthropologist and a translator. On top of that, you need to constantly justify your $1 million dollar expense or you will be swiftly canned. The Dream Job requires not only brilliance and passion but also deft people skills and the ability to work around showstopper obstacles.

So, given all this, why one million dollars? Simply because, even in this day and age, one million dollars still means something. It still has that allure when those crisp syllables roll off your tounge. The actual number is meaningless, mostly symbolic, and the bargain of the century to boot. Anyone that brilliant willing to work for one million dollars a year is clearly not in it for the money. Instead, the requirements for The Dream Job are simply the natural result of the observation that hiring only for the skills you know you need is a rather stupid way of doing things.

The conventional way of hiring is you first figure out what resources you need, how much you want to pay them, where they slot in the org chart and then you search for a candidate. This was great when your grandparents were busy climbing the corporate ladder but why don’t we shake it up a bit. How the hell is a company supposed to know what it needs anymore? If you’re a process nerd, then you’re going to hire a bunch of other process nerds and build a great process nerd company culture but how can you ever know what you really need is a deep design aesthetic as well? Similarly, if you’re a design person, how are you going to find out how an obsessive A/B tester can transform how you build? The simple answer is that you never will with a conventional hiring model. Instead, you need them to tell you how they want to do their job.

Everything about The Dream Job stems from transferring the onus of responsibility of defining your job from the employer to the employee. The limit of one a year is what gives it the specialness, the prestige and the cache neccesary to attract the rare people who could handle such responsibility. The million dollars and the enforced hands off approach is what gives them the confidence that The Dream Job is something the company is taking seriously and is committed to integrating as a core part of how they do business. The requirement that applications be public is a filter that screens out the chuckleheads and leaves only those who have a credible chance of deserving it. The requirements are not carved into stone, they’re simply my interpretation of what would be the minimum required for The Dream Job to even work.

 The Dream Job is so stunningly obvious that it must be wrong. I can’t possibly have been the first person to have come up with this. But if it’s wrong, it’s probably at least going to be wrong in an interesting way. If you’re in a position to, do you have the balls to offer a Dream Job? If so, you better hurry because I know the first chance I get to scrape a million spare dollars together, this is what I’m doing.

August 5 2009

Cash for clunkers and the unfortunate math of MPG

by Hang

Pop quiz: Which is a better deal for the government? Replacing a 10 MPG truck with a 12 MPG truck under the cash for clunkers program or replacing a 24 MPG with a 36 MPG car?

The correct answer is of course replacing the truck.

Consider both of those vehicles driving 120 miles.

The truck goes from using 12 gallons of fuel to 10 gallons of fuel, saving 2 gallons.

The car goes from using 5 gallons of fuel to using 3 1/3 gallons of fuel, saving 1 2/3 gallons of fuel.

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of Americans measuring the inverse of fuel efficiency. Europe and Australia don’t have this problem because they use L/100km.

For example: Which is a better deal for the government? Replacing a 10 L/100km MPG truck with a 8.33L/100km truck under the cash for clunkers program or replacing a 4.16 L/100km with a 2.77 L/100km car?

In this case, all that is required is simple subtraction to see that the truck nets you a 1.66 L/100km gain while the car nets you a 1.39 L/100km gain.

August 4 2009

Jobs I could do in an alternate life

by Hang
  • Professional corporate ladder climber: If I had an alternate 30 years, I’d love to start from the mailroom at some gigantic company and try to work my way up to CEO. The key to playing the corporate ladder game is that you not only have to be confident but also willing to play office politics and so many people are not only bad at office politics, they actively disdain it which I don’t understand at all. There’s something immensely fun to me about figuring out how to effectively neutralize your enemies from within  your organization and move up the ladder.
  • Operations research person: The goal of operations research is to streamline your manufacturing process to make it just a little bit smoother and quicker and more efficient every single day. There’s something zen about that devout focus to the small details which I find relaxing.
  • Clinical psychologist: Clinical psychology contains some of the most fascinating issues of epistemology that you have to grapple with on a day to day basis. How do you effectively deal with someone’s self-sabotage when their self-sabotage is sabotaging their ability to deal with their self-sabotage for example?
  • Professional chef: I’m a pretty decent cook and people ask me all the time if I’d ever considered doing it professionally. I’d always answered no because professional cheffing is nothing like cooking at home but if I had an alternate 30 years, it’d be fun to see if I could really perform at the highest levels.

the ego dilemma

by Hang

The Ego Dilemma

I love meeting engaged people when I’m drunk because it allows me to ask my most drunkly assholish question ever:

“So, are you guys going to sign a pre-nup?”

Roughly two thirds of the time, they give some version of an acceptable answer:

  • Yes
  • No because we have no assets
  • No because, while it minimizes the fallout from a divorce, we feel it increases the chance of one by starting the marriage off on a wrong footing so we’d rather not risk it.

But about one third of the time, I get my absolutely most favorite answer of all which is

  • No because we don’t believe it’s likely we’ll get divorced.

It’s my most favorite answer of all because, after many years of experience, I’ve found that it’s the best way to force people to actually grapple with the ego dilemma.

The ego dilemma goes something like this:

“So, why don’t you think you’re going to get a divorce? Nobody enters a marriage expecting a divorce yet many of them do”

“Well, sure, other people get divorces but we have X & Y and that makes our marriage special”

“Well, yeah, but there were plenty of people who thought they were also X & Y at the start of their marriage but they eventually found out that didn’t help them much in the end”

“OK, but did those people have Z-which-is-so-uniquely-rare-only-we-have-it?”

“You’re right, they didn’t have Z, but when asked a similar line of questioning, they had the same reaction except they put in Z* which was unique only to their marriage, it didn’t help them much”

“Look… we’re just SPECIAL, OK?”

It’s the “Look, we’re just SPECIAL” which is the hallmark of the ego dilemma, it might not ever be as blatantly obvious as that but it’s always hidden in there somewhere.

The ego dilemma is the belief, against reasonable evidence, that there is something unique contained in your ego that challenges previous historical experience. In short, the ego dilemma would be a perfectly reasonable assumption if you lived in a movie where you were the main character but a deeply tricky one in the real world.

Other example ego dilemmas include believing you’re of significantly above average intelligence, setting aside your life so that you can “make it” as a famous actor/musician/sports star/writer, thinking you WILL get the girl with that desperately creepy romantic gesture or, if you’re coming here from Hacker News, assuming that your startup has a reasonable chance of success commensurate with the effort you’re putting into it.

The truly frustrating thing about the ego dilemma is that it tells you nothing of any value. Recognizing that you’re caught in an ego dilemma doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. You could, after all, be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Someone has to be after all. But also likely is that you’re a clueless idiot who’s utterly convinced at your own fallacious arguments. We know this intellectually because we’ve all experienced the ego dilemma from the outside, you’re trying to convince someone that they’re just plain wrong but they keep on returning back to what makes them SPECIAL. And if you’re experienced it from the outside, it’s meant that someone’s experienced it from the outside at you.

When confronted with the ego dilemma, there are two wrong reactions and one right reaction.

The first wrong reaction is to aggressively try and deflect yourself away from an ego dilemma: “Oh, yeah, I probably SUCK at programming but I just don’t know it yet”. STFU: That you can even concieve that you suck at programming is proof positive that you’re above average and your sanctimonious faux-modest attitude isn’t fooling anyone, including yourself. Deep inside, you still think you’re an awesome programmer and so you still have an ego dilemma.

The second wrong reaction is to instantly assume the question is futile and throw your hands up in the air. “Who can ever KNOW if I’m smart or not?”. Obviously, you don’t live in a world where you believe that to be true. You still think and act like a person who believes they are smart.

Unfortunately, the right way to deal with the ego dilemma is tricky and complex and deserves an entire post of it’s own. It really involves revamping your entire belief structure into something deeply probabilistic with a much finer and more nuanced representation of ignorance which I promise to write at a later date when I’ve fully processed what I’m actually doing.

But the absolutly most fascinating thing about the ego dilemma, and the reason why I so love torturing the almost married is that, even if you fully agree with and accept the argument and logic behind the ego dilemma, even if you’re an otherwise intelligent and reasonable person who doesn’t commit the obvious errors against rationality, when confronted with an actual ego dilemma from the inside, knowledge of the ego dilemma helps you barely at all.

The ego dilemma is what I call an unthinkable thought, you can almost see it slip around people’s head, evading capture. It’s so fascinating to me watching otherwise intelligent people utterly unable and unwilling to grapple with the ego dilemma set in front of them.

Back to our married couple:

“So you understand what an ego dilemma is now?”

“Yes, it all seems very logical and well thought out”

“So you see how it applies to you signing a pre-nup?”

“Oh? No, that doesn’t count, our pre-nup is special”

“What? But saying it’s special is how you RECOGNIZE it’s an ego dilemma”

“It is… but this is a special exception to the ego dilemma because of…”


The no obnoxious rich people paradox

by Hang

I said to a friend last night that the first thing I would do when I became rich would be to hire someone to walk around with me and write down every word I uttered and then ritually burn every page as soon as it was filled. Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t do that if I were actually rich. You wouldn’t do it either but you get why it should be done. Now, I could intellectualize about how it’s all about male dominance rituals and signaling relative status but the truth is that if you don’t understand this on a gut level, you might as well move on, the rest of this post is going to be nonsense to you.

In ancient times, it was practically expected that the emperor would have a harem. After all, what was the point of power if not the ability to impregnate many fertile women? And yet, just 10 years ago, the most powerful person in the world almost got impeached for engaging in an act of non-procreative sex with a not particularly attractive woman. The power of life and death over slaves got morphed into the power of hiring and firing of servants which morphed into the worry that perhaps the domestic assistants wouldn’t be fully self actualized if you weren’t on a first name basis with them. Even the glutton is gone; as recently as 1917, you had the likes of Diamond Jim Brady who represents himself admirably in the gallery of great historical gluttons but who today could fill his generously sized shoes? The conspicuous consumption that remains today has sublimated into a form of simpering conformity that’s oh-so-dull to watch. Houses, Private Jets, Watches, Art & Wives… yawn (or, if you’re black or secretly want to be black: Cribs, Bitches, Bling & Cred). None if this inspires the poor to feel the visceral self-loathing of inadequacy nearly half as well as the obnoxiously creative rich of the past. Where did the panache and the admirable fuck you attitude go?

Understanding the no obnoxious rich people paradox may be the key to also understanding the no evil geniuses paradox. In both cases, the paradox is that it’s so easy to imagine these people existing that it’s difficult to imagine them not existing. Why, the only difference standing between you and an obnoxious rich person (apart from the money, duh) is your innate goodness and lord knows innate goodness is in short supply. So where did all the obnoxious rich people go?

Here’s my new stab towards an answer: Wealth used to represent a certain kind of freedom that it doesn’t now. A rich person today can usually get around most of the controls put there by society but a rich person in the past could also get around all the controls that we put on ourselves. In short, wealth allowed for one to enable the purest expression of the id. The reason why you can even imagine the obnoxious rich person is because, deep down, your id is kind of a douchebag. If you were a rich person in the past, you would have not only the desire but also the permission to act on your douchebag impulse. Fortunately, modern society has been set up so that even if you are rich, you’re not allowed to express your douchebag id in an unadulterated form. Instead, rich douchebaggery is channeled safely into much more innocuous channels such as fraternities which encourage conformity, not experimentation.

In short, the proles have won the invisible war that neither side was even aware they were fighting. It might have been possible, a long time ago to imagine an organized conspiracy by the powerful but today, it properly belongs only as a paranoid fantasy used by those who don’t want to take responsibility for their own failings. We, as a society, have managed to turn the rich from a bunch of hard nosed bastards into a set of navel gazing neurotics, largely harmless to everyone, except in their clumsiness.

July 27 2009

Internet Detox

by Hang

I’ve decided that, for this next week, I really want to focus on writing and so I’m going to do an experiment of weaning myself off the internet. Starting from 1AM Tuesday, July 28th, I’m going to try and go for one week without the Internet and see how it goes.

The ground rules are as follows:

I’ll be disconnecting the ethernet cable from my desktop & disabling wifi from my laptop.

I’ve disabled both safari & facebook from my iPhone but I can still use it for maps & to reply to urgent email.

If I need to use the internet for whatever reason, I am allowed to crawl under my desk to reconnect my ethernet cable but I can only use it for a maximum of 1 hour.

I will presumably be posting something about my experiences at the end of the week.

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