Monthly Archives: March 2008

Catching up on odds & ends…twitter & friendfeed…

Well, I have been spending the afternoon catching up a zillion emails. At the beach right now, spent a great morning walking several miles, bright sun, if somewhat cool & windy. The expected cold front is finally beginning to sag across the area now, and soon it will be time to go get a peck of steamed oysters for dinner. But before that…those zillion emails…

One was from a colleague who’s really into web 2.0, social networking, etc. He shared his FriendFeed with me a couple weeks ago, and I finally had a few minutes to check it out…I did and then set up my own. Decided to set up a Twitter account as well…will give it a try. Don’t know if I have the energy for all this “lifelogging”…

Now about those oysters…Jimmy Buffet once said “…give me oysters & beer, for dinner every day of the year…” 😉


Book Review, “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is a book I’ve wanted to read since it came out about a year ago, but it just made it to the top of my reading stack. I gave a copy to my dad for Christmas, and when he finished, it came back my way. A good deal 😉

The subtitle of this book is “The Impact of the Highly Improbable” and Taleb tells a compelling story about our tendancy to ignore the unexpected. I’ll confess that I felt the topic could have been covered with fewer words (probably because I agreed with his thesis going into the book), but Taleb’s anecdotes are interesting, though I found the reading tedious at times. His hypothetical states of Mediocristan and Extremistan provide a nice framework for the argument…models and plans work in Mediocristan (a land of stability and central tendancies) but fail with the outliers, the fat-tailed (or bimodal dumbbell) distributions of Extremistan (a land of unpredictability). I’ve always been one who liked the first 80% of a problem or task, and got bored with dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s”, and the idea that exhaustive planning is bound to fail in our real world of Extremistan resonates with me. Yes, you have to plan, but realize that you can’t plan for all the eventualities, and that planning and the execution of plans needs to be tempered with a knowledge that things just may pan out in a way totally outside your expectation. The Bell Curve may look appealing, but a high sigma event happens more often than it should. I liked his discussion of scalability…trying to set bounds is itself bound to fail. Why is a bound valid (except, I suppose, where there are certain physical constants that we don’t know how to move beyond…hmmm… sounds like an opportunity for a Black Swan!). The Fractal Randomness model is, as Taleb says, aesthetically pleasing, and allows us (through scaling) to at least partially anticipate the possibility of something so extreme (we are in Extremistan!) that it would have been a Black Swan, but is now a Gray Swan — at least somewhat conceptualized. Taleb says “…Mandelbrot domesticated many of my Black Swans, but not all of them, not completely. But he shows us a glimmer of hope with his method…”

So, if we can’t avoid Black Swans with exhaustive planning, what can we do? Look for ways to expose yourself to the potential of positive Black Swans, and work to mitigate the damage that negative Black Swans can bring. Expose yourself to serendipity, but beware the freak storm blowing on your house of cards.

A thought provoking book and worth a read.

Flyfishing for Hickory Shad…

I don’t get out to fish as much as I’d like, but I did get a chance to wet a line today (even if I did spend an hour on a conference call while driving home). In March, Hickory Shad (an anadromous fish that comes up the rivers to spawn) fill many rivers in eastern North Carolina. The Roanoke River has a large run, and the fish move upstream until blocked by the dam at Roanoke Rapids Lake. They are great fun to catch, concentrating in large numbers and providing acrobatic fights on light tackle.

I drove from Chapel Hill to Weldon, about 110 miles. I got to the Weldon ramp about 10:30AM. The wind was really howling, since a cold front came through during the night. The temperature was in the 50’s and the sun was bright, and the water level was perfect. Without the wind, conditions would have been ideal. As it was, casting was quite a challenge, as was staying anchored in my one-man pontoon boat, as the wind was swirling me around my anchor, making it difficult to cast in a consistent direction. However, the fish were there! I caught a few, then it slowed down. I realized that I was not getting my fly deep enough, even with nickel eyes and a sink tip line. I finally got the boat stabilized, and started catching them again. Caught about 25 or so, and about 2:30PM decided that casting a heavy fly into the wind was a lot of work. Rowed across the river to the ramp, loaded up, and headed for home.

A great day! Stopped by the wine store on the way home to pick up an Aussie mixed case; will open one up shortly!

iPod Touch

My old iPod was getting flaky, and I used it daily to listen to podcasts from the Economist on my commute to UNCG. I needed to “lifecycle” it, so I looked to see which model to go with. I wanted more than the 8GB of storage on the nano, so I looked at the Touch. I liked what I saw. I could get 16GB or 32GB (though the 32 is a bit pricey). I liked the 802.11x connectivity of the Touch, and had seen some iPhones that belonged to my friends, and I liked the OS/user interface. I decided to buy a 16GB model, though if I use it for videos I might want the bigger model, but I needed to compromise on price. One nice thing is that you can recycle an old iPod (even a non-working one) at the Apple store and get 10% off a new iPod. Cool.

Now on to the iPod Touch. This is really a cool little device. I’m very impressed with it both as an iPod and as a little computer. The email client is excellent. It imported the IMAP configurations for my 4 accounts from my Mac, and connected right up, even transferring the passwords from the Mac keychain (it did ask!). I’m using it for Gmail, for .Mac, for UNC-CH and UNCG IMAP services. Even supports Word and Excel attachments (and pdf, of course). Safari does a really nice job of browsing. The “multitouch” interface is outstanding. The web interface to Gmail works very well, if you prefer that for email. The widgets are useful, and things work like you expect intuitively. It’s interesting to be able to watch youtube videos, but that’s a real time sink 😉 .

One thing that I didn’t realize was how much smaller (thinner) the Touch is compared to the iPhone. While I like the cellular connectivity of the iPhone, the coverage of AT&T’s network (outside urban/highway areas) leaves something to be desired, and I like to be able to use my old Motorola CMDA-based RAZR from whereever I am. The iPod Touch is a great compromise device. I hope it finds its niche. I really didn’t appreciate the utility until I tried one out.

Book Review, “The Big Switch” by Nicholas Carr

I recently read “The Big Switch, Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google” by Nicholas Carr. I enjoyed the book, even though I’m a technologist who actually thinks he understands a lot about how the Internet and its applications work. Carr does a nice job of comparing the “utilification” of computing with the conversion of the electrical power industry from locally generated and managed power points to the grid of today (though interestingly, we’re now seeing more “point” generation — personal power. Many technologies seem to oscillate between centralization and decentralization, just like computing). He highlights the disruptive nature of internet technologies and points out that utility computing and ubiquitous access will change the world and the economy in profound and not completely predictable ways. After all, many of the technology decisions of the early industrial age looked sound but were quickly rendered obsolete — technological obsolescence is not a phenomenon of the computing age alone.

Carr’s “big picture” approach is good for those of us who labor in technology, especially in management positions, to help us keep in our minds exactly how much we don’t know and can’t predict, except with 20/20 hindsight. This is also a good book for the educated layman trying to understand the macro-level impacts of computing on society. Carr could have speculated more on the economic and societal implications, but he leaves that as an exercise for the reader 😉 . While it’s not in the same league as Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” this book complements Friedman’s themes very nicely.

Here’s an Amazon link to the book…