4/28/2015: 11:52 pm: Reviews

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg is a very funny and beautiful book about math and is my favorite book of the year so far. It’s very rare that when I finish a book, I have the urge to read it again. But, that’s how I felt after finishing How Not to Be Wrong, and I did end up giving it a fast, second read. I had bought a copy when I was supposed to be shopping for Xmas gifts for others, but it somehow ended up on my bookshelf. Sometimes selfishness pays off.

Ellenberg tells many fascinating stories related to math and statistics, with most describing a somewhat reasonable argument or approach that turns out to be significantly, if not completely, wrong. While he takes apart easy targets like Pascal’s and Paley’s arguments for the existence of a god, applying the Law of Large Numbers to small numbers and why you should almost never play lotteries, he also explains things like the dangers of concluding too much from p-values and extrapolating proportions that can be computed in multiple ways.

I’m very tempted to buy the domain http://shouldiplaypowerballnow.com/, and have it always render NO, except when another state like Massachusetts screws up the math and makes it temporarily profitable.

He keeps the math fairly simple, but for once in a popular book, I didn’t mind at all. The real math behind some of the problems he describes is far beyond my skills.

3/3/2015: 9:29 pm: Reviews

Despite celebrating Mardi Gras as the most important holiday for most of my life, I knew very little about the origin of New Orleans Carnival. Krewe filled in a lot of blanks, while still leaving some open, and creating even more. One big surprise for me is that the founders of New Orleans Carnival were mostly people who had relocated to New Orleans from the Northeast.

Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival, Comus to Zulu, by Errol Laborde, serves well as a history of the first two Krewes, The Mistick Krewe of Comus, the oldest Carnival association in New Orleans that has run mostly continuously since its founding, and Rex, the King of Carnival. Comus originated in casual discussions in late 1856 at Pope’s Pharmacy, that led to a meeting on January 10, 1857 at Gem Cafe on Royal Street to form a secret club. The first Comus parade was held February 24, 1857. Rex was formed in 1872 to be the public face of Carnival, though it has been overtaken in prominence in recent decades by suprekrewes like Endymion, Orpheus and Bacchus, which focus more on celebrities.

The other old-line Krewes Momus and Proteus receive much lighter coverage. The last chapter delves into the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the first primarily African-American Krewe, founded in 1909.

As for the origin of the name Comus, Krewe just says that one of the founders knew a lot about Greek and Roman mythology. That’s it. Not even the simple explanation that Comus was the Greek god of “festivity, revels and nocturnal dalliances” and a son of Bacchus, or so says Wikipedia.

The Cowbellions Society in Mobile (started in 1830 by a man from Pennsylvania) was a major influence on Comus, but only a few founders of Comus had even lived in Mobile, and most were transplanted Yankees. Although the first official Mummer’s Parade was first held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not until 1901, the tradition is based on mummers’ plays going back to the 17th century in Northern Europe. The performers in mummer’s plays are often in disguise and sometimes performed in house-to-house visits, not too unlike the Courir de Mardi Gras events held in rural Cajun Louisiana.

Another fun insight related to the colors of Mardi Gras, green, gold and purple, that originated with Rex. I’ve heard many explanations, but none as compelling as the heraldry explanation. The fields in heraldic device are metals (silver/white or gold) and colors (red, blue, purple, green and black). Since red, white and blue already appear in many flags, including that of the US, the remaining choices were green, gold, purple and black. And the Rex founder was interested in flag design and heraldry.

: 8:03 pm: Reviews

Provost and Fawcett do a fantastic job of describing the main techniques used in data mining – classification, clustering and regression – along with high level explanations of the algorithms most commonly used for each. In addition, they present an expected value framework that is very useful for choosing the right balance between true positives, false positives, etc. in the predictions of a model.

Data Science for Business is by no means an easy read for even technical readers, unless you have significant prior experience in machine learning and the relevant statistical techniques and algorithms. The book calls out the deeper technical sections that it says you can safely skip, but I feel there was a lot of critical detail in them. Nonetheless, it’s still relatively light on the math, in keeping with the target audience. The first few chapters could have been much shorter and clearer if the authors had replaced a lot of words with a much smaller number of equations, but then they may have needed to retitle the book.

One area the book doesn’t cover in extensive detail is the visualization of model performance, though there is an adequate description of ROC graphs, fitting graphs, lift curves, with an emphasis on learning enough about them to understand them at a high level.

The Coursera ML class is a better way to learn how machine learning algorithms really work, but you have to have decent programming and math skills and be willing to spend about 10-15 hours a week on it for up to 10 weeks. This book is an excellent compromise for the much shorter investment in time to read it.

Data Science for Business also turned out to be a great complement to another book I’ve been reading, How Not to Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg, which I will also will recommend once I finish it. Or maybe I’ll just recommend it now.

1/3/2015: 1:17 pm: Reviews

I enjoyed Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel, more than I expected. It’s a good complement to The Hard Thing about Hard Things. Zero to One provides more guidance on what makes a startup idea more likely to be viable, while THTAHT focuses more on how to execute as a startup founder once you have your idea.

One of his core ideas is the not entirely intuitive notion that competition is more akin to socialism than capitalism. His argument is that competitive markets destroy profits. Thiel favors using proprietary, breakthrough technology to start a company that can quickly control a small market, before scaling into a legal monopoly of a much larger and/or adjacent market. His “seven questions every business must answer” is pretty good guidance for evaluating startup ideas.

12/18/2014: 2:31 pm: Reviews

Ben Horowitz has assembled a great collection of hard fought knowledge for future founding CEOs. I took away a lot from this book, despite neither being a CEO nor planning to be one. Anyone who intends to take a leadership role in a company, especially in high tech, should read it. The advice on hiring and firing is clear, succinct and valuable. I also got a lot of great insights on what to look for in product managers. While not entirely discouraging to would be entrepreneurs, Horowitz’s vividly retold experiences make it clear that running a startup consists a lot more of stomach churning decisions and shit sandwiches than unicorns and ponies.

12/14/2014: 11:27 pm: Reviews

Creativity, Inc. is both a great insider’s look at the history of Pixar and a primer on how to nurture and manage a creative culture. An added bonus is new insight, at least for me, into the complex intellectual force that was Steve Jobs.

It’s now hard to imagine that Pixar struggled as a company, but they clearly came very close to collapse several times, especially in the Pixar Image Computer days. Steve Jobs took a huge risk to save them.

The early backstory reminded me that at my first job in around 1990 I helped evaluate hardware from Pixar Image Computer and AT&T Pixel Machines. We eventually bought SGI Indigos. Ed, Steve and the rest of team eventually decided to abandon hardware to focus on their software. Interestingly enough, though, when so many people were advising Jobs to make the same decision about Apple, he didn’t. Staying in the hardware business at Apple ended up being a brilliant decision, as it allowed them to build the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

As successful as Pixar films have been, it was amazing to read about how many almost weren’t. Toy Story 2 was a near disaster. It was proposed by Disney as a quick, direct to video sequel. Only a complete overhaul after a mostly wasted year saved the movie.

But the book is really about Ed Catmull’s very successful management philosophy, primarily for leading creators and builders. A key message in the book is continuous improvement. I would maybe even call it relentless improvement.

Although it’s not funny like the fake blooper reels at the end of their movies, you should definitely stick around for the “Managing a Creative Culture” list at the end of the book. It nicely summarizes the book.

11/23/2014: 9:14 pm: Healthcare, Reviews

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is a very engaging and enjoyable book about Gawande’s experiences as a medical resident, grouped by chapters on fallibility, mystery and uncertainty. In many of the cases, mystery and fear of fallibility contribute greatly to the uncertainty.

As with some other specialized fields, outsiders looking in often assume medical doctors very rarely makes mistakes, fully understand their current problems and are supremely confident in their decision making. Though I am nowhere near the level of Dr. Gawande in my field of software engineering, I think others believe I make fewer mistakes, know more about all of my work and am more certain of my decisions than I actually am, so it was reassuring to hear his stories. There’s a fine line between humility and self awareness on one side and Impostor Syndrome on the other.

The book weakened just over halfway in, especially in the chapters on vomiting and blushing. Mary Roach would have done those topics better justice. But Gawande pulled the book together strongly in the final section on uncertainty, especially the final chapter.

I definitely recommend this book if, like me, you wish you knew more about the day to day life and work of a surgeon. Gawande is a fantastic writer and chronicler of his profession.

7/28/2014: 10:57 pm: Healthcare, Reviews

In “Catastophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know About Health Care Is Wrong”, David Goldhill does a very good job of laying out many of the biggest issues in US health care pricing, a field I actually happen to know a lot about. From his experience running a company and being on the board of the Leapfrog Group, Goldhill is in a good position to understand the excessive, and growing, costs of our current system to individuals and companies, as well as the challenges in achieving price and quality transparency in health care.

Although he superficially comes out against the ACA, he seems to accept that it was the only thing politically possible at the time, though he would have liked something even more extreme. The short period of history since the book has been published has not been too kind regarding some of his speculative criticisms of the ACA. In particular, he suggests that the uninsured population may actually increase after the introduction of the ACA, when in fact it has decreased by about 10 million. His arguments against the ACA are some of the weaker parts of the book. One good point he does make about the ACA is that despite all the uproar, it actually affects a relatively small percentage of the population.

Where the book shines is in laying out the fundamental problems with our health care system regarding the relationships between health plans (a.k.a., health insurance companies, insurance carriers and payers), medical providers, employers and employees and their dependents. The financial incentives for providers have inevitably brought us to the situation where fee for service leads providers to perform more (and more costly) procedures. Similarly, health plans acting as third party administrators of self funded plans for medium to large employers. generally, those with more than 1,000 employees, are incented by higher volumes. Some of this is being addressed by Accountable Care Organizations and corrections to the Medicare reimbursement system, but it is the tip of the iceberg.

Goldhill also does a fantastic job of explaining how and why so much unneeded care is performed, and why it is not only economically bad, but actually produces worse clinical outcomes. More care can be worse. But, he also understands that in the extreme case of the heat of the moment when a family member or loved one is very ill, it can be very hard not to want the doctors to do everything possible to save them, regardless of cost or likelihood of success. Since the max out of pocket on insurance plans is roughly around $10k, the costs aren’t typically borne by the family, but are spread across everyone in higher premiums.

In a section on cost sharing and price transparency, he mentions my company in a footnote as a potentially successful startup. We’ve since had a successful IPO this year and we experience continued rapid growth. Maybe this health care pricing transparency thing has something going for it.

5/8/2014: 9:49 pm: Mac

Several times I’ve downloaded an app and had OS X ask me the following every time I opened it:

TheAppName is an application downloaded from the Internet. Are you sure you want to open it?

The first time, well, okay, but everytime?

The trick is to remove the com.apple.quarantine extended attribute from the application’s directory. For example, in the case of Adium, I needed to run the following from a Terminal shell:

xattr -d com.apple.quarantine /Applications/Adium.app/


11/11/2013: 12:12 am: Reviews

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a fascinating book on a topic that I previously knew almost nothing about. Barbara Demick very much deserved the National Book Award Finalist award.

I first found out about this book when I went to the Goodreads office in San Francisco for a talk on their recommendation engine. On top of a great explanation of recommendation engines and some cool anecdotes about how they tuned their recommender algorithms, I walked away with a recommendation for this great book. The engineer giving the presentation said it was his goal to get as many people as possible to read Nothing to Envy.

Demick’s early reporting on North Korea was thwarted when she realized that she wouldn’t be able to have any meaningful conversations with citizens, due to the oversight of her North Korean minders. So, she painstakingly interviewed North Korean defectors and fact-checked their stories. Demick did an amazing job of turning those interviews into riveting stories of the soul-crushing poverty, totalitarianism and terror that still reigns in North Korea. The North Korean famine in the mid 90’s very likely resulted in more deaths than the Great Famine in Ireland.

On a related note, one of my cousins very recently traveled to South Korea and was able to go to the Joint Security Area. She wrote that, “to visit that area, we had to board a special military bus, ride on roads surrounded by mine fields and anti-tank obstacles rigged with C-4 explosives, wear visitor ID badges, and line up single file when walking about.” While standing near armed South Korea guards, a North Korean soldier only a few hundred feet away stared at them through binoculars. Another North Korean peaked through a window and photographed them. Given the sad stories in Nothing to Envy of poverty, even amongst the North Koreans, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a film camera for which film has long since not been available.

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