Squirrel!

Yesterday was officially the first day without a post in a year. I have spent the last two days figuring out what I want to do next. I want to keep blogging about creative pursuits as well as more academic ones, but putting all of that together on a single blog makes it harder for readers to relate.

There’s a new blog for the more academic posts at Cogito Ergo Sciurus!, there’s a post there hinting at the title. Which means that this blog is dedicated to the more creative parts of my life from now on.

At the same time I have rationalised the categories I use on both blogs so that if you want to follow an even narrower sub-section of my posts there should now be a feed to suit your needs.

Day 340 – The Foundation of Reason

26 – 100 Best (Free) Science Documentaries Online

From a hard-wired instinct to see patterns in reality, humanity formalised scientific principles. Science, despite all the ill-informed nay-sayers out there, is barely more than making explicit the mechanism that is built into all our brains at the fundamental level.

It isn’t something we invented.
It is something that already existed.
And we gave it a name, and wrote down its rules.
Continue reading Day 340 – The Foundation of Reason

Day 335 – Surprise and Wonder

31 – 100 Algorithms

Algorithms.
It sounds like such a sturdy workmanlike word. The sound conjures visions of dusty books, careful craftsmanship and transparent function.

Oh, how wrong first impressions can be…
Continue reading Day 335 – Surprise and Wonder

Day 310 – Scientific Method

56 – 100 Greatest Discoveries

Science is hard.

And I don’t just mean as a discipline, but communicating about science is possibly even harder and a task scientists are sadly rarely well-equipped for. It is great having the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye available as standard-bearers, because we need all the clear communicators we can get.

What is particularly insidious is the way modern politics and the media interact with each other, and the resulting “fair-and-balanced” rhetoric that requires that for every argument on one side, someone has to be given an opportunity to speak for the other side.

Some things are just not balanced.
Sometimes when you put the sum-total of all the facts on the scales, one side tips further. Much further.
Continue reading Day 310 – Scientific Method

Day 305 – What Are Your 100 Things?

61 – My 100 Things

Bucket lists are a little morbid by definition, but that doesn’t make them a bad idea. While looking around for a suitable list to link to today, I actually found a do-your-own-bucket-list site, and I created one. It was a lot harder than I expected to get a good list of a hundred.
Continue reading Day 305 – What Are Your 100 Things?

Day 292 – Skew and Faith

74 – The 100 Most Influential People in the World

I was hoping to turn the Time 100 list into an interesting post about politics, and how we’re collectively driving the show in the ditch now with our preoccupation with irrelevancies and rhetoric over substance and facts. My train of thought detailed though when I started to play with the filtering options at the bottom of the page.

I was pleasantly surprised that the gender representation was fairly balanced at 59/41 (sadly, I still do not have to clarify in which direction). Although not perfect, it is remarkably even considering that society still does not have as many opportunities in it for women to shine as it does for men; the balance on the Time 100 list is probably more even than society is. Aside; it’d be nice if there were a few alternate gender orientations on the list but that’s probably too much to hope for at the moment.

The distribution across the age brackets was also not too surprising. Influence correlates with age. Building an army of minions takes time. On the upside, I haven’t hit my prime age for influence yet, so there is still time.

Geography… *sigh* … yes, yes… we know you feel like the US is the entire universe, but really; 57 out of a 100? I am also distraught to discover that Australia only ranks 1, and Europe scrapes in with just 10. I guess it just goes to show how hard it is to accept ideas and perspectives that seem foreign.

And the results of filtering by profession are just outright bewildering. I was expecting Government to score big, and Business as well at that. But why is Sports even on the list? There is nothing wrong with enjoying a game of whatever, but how are these people influential in the broader sense? And I can see Artists being influential, but as heartening as the thought of art being influential is, I do not believe there are more influential artists than politicians in the world. Sad, but true.

And sadder still, but probably right… science scores only 5 out of 100.

Which kinda brings me back to the original intended topic. We are running our societies ever more in a scientific vacuüm. I understand science is hard, and trusting someone in a lab-coat even more so. But we didn’t get where we are today without science. Almost everything we use in our cushy everyday lives is derived from scientific discovery and application of scientific principles. This includes the communications media we use, the computers we take for granted, the lasers we all have in our living rooms and tool boxes, even most of the food and clothes we use. The most basic needs for survival in the form we take them for granted only exist by the Grace of Science.

We’re happy to accept science through faith when it makes our lives easier, but we question it at every step when it contradicts our “truths”. When it asks hard questions or gives us hard answers.

When did we become so afraid of thinking?

In any case; I have resolved that I need to become influential. Either Europe or Australia could do with another representative, and I guess I should do something Scientific after that rant.

Where is the list of 100 Tips on Becoming Influential?

Day 240 – Nitro!

Tonight ended really well… and I now know exactly what my next ice-cream-making purchase will have to be.

Dinner was a very solid Indian performance. But no dessert. So we wandered the streets of Melbourne in search of something good. It is remarkably hard to find just-desserts in Melbourne; clearly they aren’t very desserty people down here.

However…

When they do dessert, they do it spectacularly.

Stand Back! They are Going To Try Science!
Stand Back! They are Going To Try Science!

This gelato shop makes the gelato from scratch right in front of you. With Science! And Liquid Nitrogen!

Goopy delicious ingredients go in the mixing bowl. Mixing bowl starts. Liquid nitrogen gets poured in. Instant ice cream.

Day 133 – Surprising Jobs and Dice

No Dice

What could be simpler than dice?

If everyone has a fair un-weighted die, all have the same chance to win or lose.
P(A wins over B) = P(B wins over C) = P(C wins over A) = 0.5

You win half the time, you lose half the time.

We can change the dice to make the battle less equal. We can give some multiple sides marked 6, and others multiple sides marked 1. We can shift the balance to give A an edge over B, B an edge over C… and then overall C is the big loser.

Mathematically we call this the transitive property.
If A > B and B > C, then A > C.

Obviously and intuitively this must be true, right?
You’d be wrong in thinking so.

It is possible to design a set of dice where A on average beats B, B on average beats C and C on average beats A. We call these non-transitive dice.

An example of such dice could have sides marked (if you don’t want to click the link):

  1. Sides: 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 6
  2. Sides: 2, 2, 2, 5, 5, 5
  3. Sides: 1, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4

Die 1 beats die 2 in 21 out of the 36 possible combinations.
Die 2 beats die 3 in 21 out of the 36 possible combinations.
Die 3 beats die 1 in 25 out of the 36 possible combinations.

Obviously, intuitively, this isn’t possible, yet there it is.

Best Man for the Job

Which is where a recent management dilemma comes into the picture.

I somewhat flippantly summarised my problem as related to explaining a potential budgeting issue due to non-transitive aspects to skill-to-project mappings. That was really a slightly hand-wavy allusion to the dice above.

Let’s make it a little more concrete.

Let’s say we have 3 IT projects:

  • Web project; no complicated coding, but it does need to look good
  • Banking system; routine processing, but it does need to be fail-proof
  • Page-rank; a very mathy problem, but once understood easy to code

Let’s say we have 3 Developers (all parallels to real people is coincidental):

  • One genius: Steve Yegge
    Great at almost everything, except graphical design
  • One average developer: Jeff Atwood
    A flair for design, and knows enough transaction-safety, but no maths-whizz
  • One manager who shouldn’t be coding: Bill Gates
    Passable design-sense, passed maths, but don’t trust him with your money

Let’s say we have to estimate how long it will take to complete the 3 IT Projects with the Developers we have available. We could specifically allocate names to the projects, but the projects are due to start at different points in the future that we do not know yet.

Well… how about we just estimate everything for a general average developer and then work out the names later? Intuition says that some will be over and some will be under, but on average we’ll get our estimates right… right?

Web Banking Page-rank
Yegge 50 days 10 days 10 days
Atwood 10 days 30 days 50 days
Gates 30 days 50 days 30 days

On average, each of the projects will take 30 days.
On average, Yegge is faster than anyone else.
On average, Atwood is average.
On average, Gates is slower than anyone else.

But let’s just step away from the averages and have a look at what could happen once reality unfolds in three different ways:

  • Yegge does Banking, Atwood does Page-rank, Gates does Web
    Result: 90 days total, 30 average per project
    A truly average result
  • Yegge does Banking, Atwood does Web, Gates does Page-rank
    Result: 50 days total, 16.7 average per project
    The best possible outcome
  • Yegge does Web, Atwood does Page-rank, Gates does Banking
    Result: 150 days total, 50 average per project
    A learning experience for everyone; also: OH GOD, WHY? IT BURNS!

So, depending on who is available when the projects kick off, either through chance or because we planned it to be that way, it could take as little as 50 days or as many as 150 days.

It could be 40 days under (almost 50%), or 60 days over (more than 60%).

And note that this is with a relatively mild skills gap.
Some developers are order-of-magnitude faster than others.

Also note that in this example I’ve glossed over the other project work that would make it impossible to assign Yegge to both Banking and Page-rank, which would leave Bill no coding to do (arguably an even better outcome for everyone).

Again, our intuition is wrong.
And for very similar reasons to the dice.

What this means is that it’s almost always a mistake to try to estimate project work based on an “average” developer. It is better to always have a specific developer in mind, and if that changes, adjust the effort estimate accordingly. You will end up with far fewer counter-intuitive results to explain after the fact.

Try Science!

And that brings me back to an earlier point.

If possible, always try science first. Even on problems that you cannot completely “solve” mathematically. An approximation will at least warn you if There Be Dragons before you get et.

Day 121 – Try Science!

Today I found myself trying to explain a potential budgeting issue due to non-transitive aspects to skill-to-project mappings. I was attempting a conceptual explanation, but I’m not sure it connected. I think I should do a numerical example to illustrate the point I was trying to make.

It occurs to me though that this might lend itself to a good blog post. I just need to figure out how to set it up and then explain in a way that is more generally applicable.

Courtesy of xkcd, Try Science!
Courtesy of xkcd, Try Science!

I think science is a great tool.

Maybe not so much to get a final answer for a management problem, because the soft skills are just hard to quantify numerically. But I think there are mathematical and scientific tools that could fit in a management tool-belt to assess some of the situations I’ve already run into myself.

Explaining these in the moment is hard.
I never feel prepared enough.

I really enjoyed writing the post exploring contract resourcing, and I think I might want to do more in that same vein.

An occasional series of posts with concrete examples and, where applicable, formulas so that the next time I need to explore the limits to certain problems or explain what is possible, I have some read-made “tutorials” to draw upon.