Sunday, February 26, 2006

Turn of the Screwn: Reading Old books

for the past few days i've been reading henry james' The Turn of the Screw. you can find the entire text at the given link if you want to read it online.

this is a mesmerizing tale of ghosts, manipulation, paranoia, intrigue.. in essence, it's a fantastic suspense novel!

however, here's my problem: the english itself is so outdated, and some of the phrases are, at least at first, hard to understand. essentially, the english is very precise and remote. there's talk of feelings, but they are communicated in such a calculated fashion. of course, this is part of the narrator's voice, but it is so antiquated.

i guess i feel there are three things that can be somewhat separated in this text: the theme, the mood, and the vocabulary. i really feel like the theme and mood could be modernized and wholly understood, without losing much in the way of the story. the story certainly doensn't hinge on a lot of 19th century gotchas which you just need to know.

this reminds me of two translations of Albert Camus' The Stranger. one of the translations was from the 50s and all stodgy and awkward, in my opinion. the other translation was written quite recently, in the late 90s i believe, and it was so readable (amazon link). the story came alive for me.

why isn't such "translation" done for old english texts? i think someone could read james' text, and modernize it. anyone who wanted to could read the original... but the translation, if it could hold what many consider the key parts of the book, would probably be wildly successful at bringing more new readers to james.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Great Firewall of China, Our Complicity, and.. when you want to see US embarrassments, go to China..

two topics in this post, which are connected, but i'll leave that connecting to you and others...

the chinese internet presence is quite well calculated. they manipulate their citizenry and internet companies to achieve their goals of an internet under tight control, deemed suitable for consumption.

today there were hearings in washington where many of the participants took strong, and justifiable punches, at china and the complicit internet companies. you can find the transcripts here.

boing boing has an ok summary. i couldn't find a better summary with a quick search. but it certainly isn't very comprehensive.

but perhaps good timing for china: today a lot of new photos from abu ghraib were released by an australian news show. the chinese government loves to publish things the US government has trouble with. if you want to find out about problems in the US government, and you do searches online at google news or elsewhere, often times the most volatile content, that US news agencies won't print, are printed by the chinese media, which as we all know, is largely state run. often the text is quite problematic, but the pictures don't lie. so now i give you a link to some of the pictures from the prison, hosted on a chinese news site. WARNING: these pictures are disturbing. Link

Saturday, February 11, 2006

your privacy, online

recently in the press there's been much discussion about online privacy. i wanted to get some reader feelings concerning this topic. for reference, a lot of this discussion has grown out the US government's recent efforts to get samples of query logs from the big internet search engines. See an article here.

how do you feel about the fact that whenever you do a query online, at most sites (google, yahoo, msn, and smaller services) , that query is retained, along with your ip address and other information like your cookie?

does this bother you?

do you actively clear your cookies and change your ip address from time to time?

are you worried about how that data is being used, or might be used in the future? if you are worried, and you more worried about how companies might use the data, or the fact that governments might be able to get access to much of the data?

if you aren't worried, why not?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

kinds of workers

my conversation with nikhil also sparked another line of thought: what kinds of workers are there, and how do we mix different types of workers together? i started thinking about this because i wanted to try and have a model for choices i make as a worker as a function of my personal development.

in this part i talk strictly about people as workers, and i don't consider the social dimension of our lives. this is of course limiting, but it has helped me think about work.

now i imagine you're wondering what i mean.. so let me be more specific. in this post i want to talk about 3 types of information workers that i've been thinking about: peons, problem solvers, and visionaries.

often, people mix a bit of these 3 types into their own work.


there is little innovation in what a peon does. a peon works towards some goal which is clearly defined, chugging away at a task until it is completed. it's important to note that a peon is largely interchangeable with another peon. for concreteness, and coming from a perspective i understand, let's consider software engineers as an example of the information workforce peons. for the most part, software engineers are implementing a specification. 90% of this work is likely peon-ish in nature.. swapping in another peon is usually feasible, it's just that typically the peon working on a problem has honed their skills and is probably quite quick at completing the task. in essence, i guess i'm talking about peons with semi-important expertise.

problem solvers

problem solvers can take new problems, or old problems, and find interesting and innovative solutions. they also see the drawbacks and limitations with their solutions, and can expand the original problem to see larger classes of problems, as well as solutions. continuing with software engineers, we can see that for a typical software engineers, it's probably true that some small percentage of their time is spent problem solving.

a purer problem solver might be considered professors in academia. their job is essentially to push the envelope of research in their field. when they are done with a problem, often they hand off that problem to others so they can continue pushing the envelope in other areas.


a visionary sees where things should be down the road, or where they might be, and works with that vision at the forefront of their mind, guiding their decisions. visionaries see things others can't, and they bring people around to their vision, and recruit people to help them realize the vision.

some analysis

now i imagine that even visionaries were once peons. furthermore, if you really want to accomplish your vision, you probably need to be very good at working in peon mode. visionaries also need to have good problem solving skills, because the road to their vision is filled with obstacles.

interestingly, i believe that problem solvers need not ever really be peons or visionaries. they can kind of wall themselves in, working myopically on their particular problem. there are many academics who do just this.

the best information workers, i believe, are those that combine good peon work with problem solving. in general, visionaries make poor information workers unless you let them work on their vision. otherwise, they'll be unfocused. pure problem solvers do poorly as information workers because unless you can compartmentalize their work into individual problems, it's inevitable that the problem solver will be distracted as they think more deeply about problems that might be essentially irrelevent.

now i actually personally think it's good to be a peon, at least for a while. it's where you sharpen your skills. however, at some point you learn everything there is to know, and then you're going through the motions. if you want a mentally easy life, workwise, certainly you should just keep repeating the motions. but if you want to keep learning, then you need to switch your peon work, because only in new work will you actually learn new things. in fact, that's exactly what pure problem solvers generally thirst for: they want to solve new problems, which requires learning new things.

inevitably, i imagine people will think that i'm making some judgement about the value of each type of worker. something like, "oh visionaries are so much more interesting and vibrant. who wants to be a peon?" but that's not my point at all. my point is that by understanding these categories, how you feel about them, and understanding where you might fit, and how your decisions relate to these categories, you might better understand where you want to be, and what might need to change to get you there.

or maybe this is all bunk... but i've been thinking about it and wanted to get it recorded.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

choosing a problem to tackle

i ran into nikhil today while leaving berkeley. it's always interesting talking with nikhil: he has big problems on his mind, even if he has no idea how he might approach them.

we started talking about what problems we might work on. nikhil's distinction was between iterative work on problems, vs trying to solve big problems, like building a time machine. of course, big problems probably also include things that may be more approachable than time machines.

i remarked that my goal was to start on a known problem and iterate on it -- try to feel my way into a field one small problem at a time. maybe after getting my hands dirty i could look at some really big problems where not much was known and a big splash would be remarkable.

nikhil wanted to do something different. i think his point was that there are lots of real-world problems with real-world solutions that haven't been implemented because no one has connected some esoteric research with the real solution implied by that research that could benefit millions of people.

i certainly think nikhil is right. unfortunately, i believe that seeing that connection and knowing to run with it, in the face of many obstacles, is a lucky decision... well perhaps luck has nothing to do with it. but i know it takes a singular mind, stubborness, an intense drive and a knack for seeing things in new ways. i don't think i have those qualities. however, i think perhaps nikhil does, so good luck to him!

actually a lot of what i'm discussing here reminds me of a speech neha gave me, a speech my dick hamming, one of the founders of coding theory. it's called "You and Your Research" -- it's directed at researchers, but I think it's something a lot of people would find a useful read.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell: What pit bulls can teach us about profiling

the current new yorker has a great article looking at the problems with naive profiling, like racial profiling, or banning pitbulls. malcolm gladwell examines why we use such systems, and why they fail, and how might we be more effective.

here's a stirring part of the article that describes what happened when some pitbulls in ottawa, ontario jumped a fence and started attacking a young boy. pitbull-like breeds were banned in ontario days later:

The dogs jumped the fence, and Agua took Jayden’s head in his mouth and started to shake. It was a textbook dog-biting case: unneutered, ill-trained, charged-up dogs, with a history of aggression and an irresponsible owner, somehow get loose, and set upon a small child. The dogs had already passed through the animal bureaucracy of Ottawa, and the city could easily have prevented the second attack with the right kind of generalization—a generalization based not on breed but on the known and meaningful connection between dangerous dogs and negligent owners. But that would have required someone to track down Shridev CafĂ©, and check to see whether he had bought muzzles, and someone to send the dogs to be neutered after the first attack, and an animal-control law that insured that those whose dogs attack small children forfeit their right to have a dog. It would have required, that is, a more exacting set of generalizations to be more exactingly applied. It’s always easier just to ban the breed.