Thursday, October 27, 2005

Zach Facts

More OCD: When I get a Coke from the fountain machine (Diet Coke lately), I have to push down those little plastic buttons in the configuration that corresponds to my drink. So for example just now, the buttons on my lid say COLA, DIET, RB, and OTHER. I pushed down COLA and DIET, because that's what I have. I suppose I don't have to push down the buttons, I just like to.

Diminishing Returns, Local Maxima, & Saying Yes to Life

I've always been interested in how judge the goodness of something, and how we learn how to turn up the goodness knob. Like when you see a bag of snack chips that says, "Now, better tasting!" I think, "Really? How would I judge that for myself? What did they learn that made them able to produce a better-tasting chip? What secrets remain buried that will someday enable even better-tasting chips? Can chips taste 10 times better? How about 100 times?" It may sound like I'm over-thinking something that is really just a calculated bid to make a lot of gullible consumers buy their product. But there is an important phenomenon illustrated here: it's easy to tell the difference between something that's terrible and something that's kind of good. But it turns out to be extremely difficult to tell the difference between something that's very very good and something that's merely very good. As you near the asymptotic top of the curve, pouring more and more effort into goodness yields less and less perceptible benefit. This is what's known as diminishing returns. It's important because you want to realize when benefits no longer justify costs. Also, being able to distinguish between things at the top is the essence of taste. Examples abound: Is a $200 bottle of wine really twice as good as a $100 bottle? That's a tough sell. On the other hand, it will not be hard to find a $12 bottle that's much more than twice as good as a $6 bottle. Businesses need to recognize diminishing returns because if you don't, you can start working too hard to distinguish yourself not very much. What's needed in this situation is to change tracks completely, to put yourself at the bottom of a new curve. Businesses are reluctant to make this decision because it's risky. But risk is the harbinger of reward. This is important in life as well as business, by the way. More on that in a couple of paragraphs. When you get stuck working hard near the top of the quality curve, it's what mathematicians call a local maximum. It means that you may not be able to do much better where you are, but you may be able to start over and climb higher. The classic metaphor is mountain climbing: When you climb to the top of a peak, you may be able to see higher peaks around you. You will only be able to reach those higher peaks by climbing down first. People are reluctant to do this, because at first, it looks like you're doing worse. The PC started out worse that the mainframe, but ended up climbing higher. Japanese cars started out worse than American cars, but ended up dominating. We see this over and over. This is the phenomenon that makes startups powerful in the aggregate, and makes nations that encourage entrepreneurship end up doing better than the totalitarian regimes. Artists are among the people who are able to bring about the difference between good work and very good work. And while merely good artists compete for space at the top of well-known local maxima, great artists push right on through to something profoundly different. I just finished reading "Beyond Java" by a well-known Java author, speaker, and consultant name Bruce Tate. It takes a lot of courage for him to write about a sea change in the technology that has become his bread and butter. Even more so, because the prospect of such a change is going to be extremely unpopular to the very audience he's writing for. I, on the other hand, couldn't be more excited. Shakeups are always exciting (granted, though not always beneficial). They are the very shape of opportunity. And besides, the status quo is lame and boring. People tend to be very comfortable with the status quo because it's well-known and safe, but I believe strongly that safety is overrated, and that it is not consistent with being fully alive. Why is great art so invigorating? Because it demolishes our comfort zone. This is analogous to life itself: a cycle of destruction and renewal, of constantly learning, adapting, and innovating.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Text-To-Speech Rulez

Having recently failed to find a book I was interested in either in the university library or the local public library, I decided to look for it in an online book service called Safari. I had tried this a couple of years ago and wasn't too impressed with the selection. This time, not only did I find the book I was looking for, but half the books on my tech books wish list. I was like a kid in a candy store. Reading books on a computer screen is sort of hard, and Safari doesn't really make it easy to print, so I selected a page of text and invoked OS X's text-to-speech feature to have the computer read it to me. In so doing, I discovered a marvelous synergy. Allow me to set this up for you: I have two serious problems with books. The first is that while I'm reading, my train of thought is very easily disrupted. Either some external thing inteferes, or my brain wanders off on its own to think about something shiny. This tends to slow me down a lot, and I was never that fast to begin with. The second problem is that I also get distracted while I'm not reading. That is, I tend not to finish the books I start because I get interested in something else and start a half dozen more books along the way. Back to the crazy talking computer: I would not consider the computer's staccato robotic cadence a good substitute for reading the book for myself. But if I read along with the crazy robot voice, something magical happens. The voice keeps a dogmatic pace. I can adjust the speed, and in fact I have found that I can follow along faster than I would read on my own. Also, the machine doesn't permit my mind to wander. If I'm wearing headphones, external distractions are shut out and my brain locks in on the words. On top of everything, I find that combining the visual part of my brain with the auditory really saturates my mind with the ideas and improves my comprehension and retention. Best of all, being able to push through a book at a good, guaranteed rate keeps up my momentum and dramatically improves the odds that I will read all the way to the end. Give this a shot. It's weird at first, but not after you've burned through a couple hundred pages. On OS X, I recommend the voice called Bruce. He sounds the most like a person. And if you are willing to spend a little bit of money, you can do much better. Go over to Cepstral and try the demos. I think you will be amazed how far this technology has come.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Divided Attention

I think it was John Udell who said that in an age of blossoming abundance (albeit unevenly distributed), attention is the new scarcity. And there certainly are a lot of things competing for my attention. Lately I have been dreaming of working at something -- anything -- where I could go more than 30 minutes without an interruption. Some people would probably say, "30 minutes? You're lucky to get that!" Precisely my point. Elizabeth and I went to Garden-Ville yesterday, and what we thought was going to be a chore (whith Graham in tow) turned out to be a warm and meditative delight. Plants grow at their pace, never faster. There was dappled shade and living things, and Graham had dirt and a wagon and a cat and dog to play with. Just writing about it, I feel that goodness again. On the way home, Elizabeth and I agreed that there is more to this than meets the eye; that there are ways to live that feel truly alive. This is the Quality Without a Name. I think we're learning to know it when we see it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Strange Facts about Zach

From the "More evidence that I probably have OCD" file: Lately when I'm operating a microwave oven, I only want to stop it on a prime number of seconds. I don't like it to go all the way down to zero because of the irritating beeps. So when I stop it, it has to be one of the primes: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, you get the idea.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

This Photo is a Mistake

Apple is usually very saavy when it comes to design. So why is it no one noticed that this photo looks like a burn victim's mangled stump with an iPod strapped onto it?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Within Procrastination's Icy Grip

Bleh. I am easily distracted. At the moment, I am interested in so many things that I can't focus on anything in particular. Of course, the Internet only fuels my mania. I should be thrilled that I have the opportunity at Texas State to throw myself full-time into all things Sakai. But I am easily seduced by shiny things. And right now Cocoa and Ruby are competing with each other over who will distract me the most. I really really want to start a software company as soon as possible. But I have to ask myself whether I will ever be able to concentrate on one thing long enough to finish it.