The Expertise Lies Not Just In The Act But All Leading Up To The Act

Have you ever watched a professional window washer work? I recall one London vacation afternoon when I was having a cup of coffee with my family, I was just staring across the street and watching a window washer work on the front panes of a storefront. Unlike we home windows, keeping these things clean (and see through) materially affects the store owner, so it pays to have them cleaned often. Watching him do windows that were three times the square footage of my home windows, and in probably half the time, I marvelled at his technique. He would soap up the window with his left hand and, with as near as I can recall, one continuous stroke, clean the entire window with the squeegee and then smoothly wipe it off on the towel hanging from his leg.

My organic chemistry professor in college had a very similar technique. He would wipe the board with his right hand (he was left handed) as he needed more space for writing, and fill in the newly clean area with new formulae. He did it so smoothly, it was often difficult to keep up writing.

I was reminded of this when I read a passage in Bill Buford's excellent Heat:

Why don't more people use pasta water at home? Sometimes I thought it should he bottled, because there is no way that your home water could ever achieve the starchy viscosity of a restaurant’s. Ir would be cheap—being liquidy leftovers—and the jar should he very large, probably darkly tinted, like a vine bottle, because there would he no reward in looking too closely at what was floating inside.

The thought also made me curious about the moment in the history of American cooking when efficiency won out over taste and, instead of using a pair of tongs and pulling the spaghetti straight out of the pot, people started using a colander (an evil instrument) and letting all that dense, murky rich “water” rush down the drain. The practice is described in the original, 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking, in its “Rules for Boiling Spaghetti, Macaroni, Creamettes and Noodles,” along with the even more alarming one of taking your colander full of spaghetti (rather mushy, since you've boiled it for an hour) or macaroni (easy to che after being boiled For twenty minutes) or creamettes (no longer a supermarket item, alas, but once the essential ingredient ¡n a baked creamette loaf) and rinsing it in cold water—oh, heresy of heresies—just to make sure nothing ¡s clinging to it.

I think about this often - the expert not only does the obvious (wash the window, mix the chemicals), but all the little pieces in-between that make what is ordinary, extraordinary.


99.9% Food Commentary on the Web = Grievously Simple-Minded

Holy crap, my head almost literally exploded the other day. Yes, LITERALLY. The world turned red and I had a throbbing in my skull about half way through this article: "How Pepperidge Farm Duped My Family". I know this is probably a bit of hyperbole, but Vani (aka the Food Babe, way to lean forward!), should be arrested for committing outright fraud - either because she is hopelessly naive or maliciously forwarding an agenda based on insanity. There is no middle ground; she could not actively believe what she claims in that article without either doing ZERO (LITERALLY ZERO) scientific research or having with some alternate plan. I mean, who else would highlight that "sugar" is a potentially harmful or unexpected ingredient in a COOKIE. That's a hell of a research job there, Vani.

It was almost enough to make me comment in their comment section. "Someone on the Internet is Wrong!"

I came upon someone else who actually took to their blog to respond to the absurd Buzzfeed article about unhealthy things in food. Let me get out of their way:

The author of the BuzzFeed article knows painfully little about chemistry and biology. But that apparently wasn't a barrier: righteous conviction (and the worldview mentioned in the above three paragraphs) are enough, right? Wrong. Ten minutes of unbiased reading would have served to poke holes all through most of the article's main points. I've spent more than ten minutes (as you can probably tell), and there's hardly one stone left standing on another. As a scientist, I find sloppiness at this level not only stupid, not only time-wasting, but downright offensive. Couldn't anyone bebothered to look anything up? There are facts in this world, you know. Learn a few.


NSA Redux: Kyllo vs. United States Supreme Court Decision Will Decide This All

A TERRIFIC news story with a German Politician detailing what T-mobile was able to learn from his phone presence ALONE:

They knew everything - where he was, who he was talking to, when he was actively engaged in something, or where he was on vacation. Turning off the phone before the meeting wouldn't even matter - because they had the trace right up to the point he turned it off!

Whether or not this makes us safer is another question, but it does not seem to me to be remotely illegal (e.g. a cop has a right to sit outside a coffee shop and write down everyone who enters and leaves over the course of a day, in public view). If we want to change THAT law, then fine, let's do that. But stop belly-aching about "illegal activity".

I will say I heard one compelling argument the other day:

Much like Kyllo vs. United States, if "the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of a private home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion" - in this case technology to explore private companies' databases and networks - then they've broken the law. But I do not think they've gotten anywhere near to that.

Why The NSA Isn't Listening To Your Calls

People are wrong about the NSA. I promise you, they do not listen to your calls en masse. My proof? Let me pull up this quote:

“We didn’t care what they were saying,” he says. “What we cared about was who was saying it, and where they were saying it from. Nobody was interested in listening to people’s conversations.”

There you go. What was that from? Donald Cooper of the ASA. Haven't heard of it? Probably because it's from East Germany in 1958.

Even some 50+ years ago, intelligence folks did not need to listen to calls, it's just expensive (manpower & techwise) and does not provide any more information than just listening to the meta-data.

Would you like a more recent example? How about the AOL Data Leak? AOL released anonymized information about search queries to researchers and it leaked out. Now, it had no information about the users, but researchers QUICKLY discovered people and what they were interested in - real people, not their pseudonyms or accounts. 

Why would you waste time and money when all the information is there already? The fact is the NSA isn't not listening BECAUSE THEY DON'T HAVE TO. 

Getting Out of Your Head (and iOS 7)

There's a wonderful study (covered in the excellent Made to Stick ) which asks people to tap out a song using a pen on a desk but with no other music. People think that they do a perfect job but the people across the desk have NO idea what they are doing. Ultimately, this comes from the tapper having the song running in their head at the same time they're tapping, and being ineffective at communicating that with just the beat.

On reading this INCREDIBLY harsh commentary of iOS 7, I realize this what the most recent design of the product suffers from. Look at this comparison of the icons:

These icons are NOT GOOD. Well, let me correct that. They're not good ON THEIR OWN. In comparison, or as a riff, on the original icons, they're not bad. Kind of a study on a nice original work. But that's not what you have - you have icons that need to stand on your own - and these just don't. Advice for all product people - be aware of your context and make sure your work can stand solo!

Genuine Reality TV

Every year I watch the NHL playoffs and think, "I love sports, why don't I watch more of this?" I was EXTREMELY pleased to see they had their best opening night numbers in 16 years:

Almost simultaneously, I saw this OUTSTANDING video overlaying the great new Daft Punk album (Random Access Memories) with a Soul Train video from the late 70s:

First, marvel in the dance. And the music. But mostly the dance.

Second, this is just reality television today minus about 40 years. These folks loved to have an audience to watch them do their thing, and we loved it (and love it today!) 

But, third, I reflected on both the dancing and the NHL playoffs and I realized what I loved about both vs. a lot of what I see today on reality TV (I'm looking at you, Real Housewives of *). It's actual skill + actual emotion = SOMETHING. This is different than: audience + insane people = NOTHING. I'm as into trashy stuff as the next guy, but you have to do two things in order for me to love watching you:

  1. Be good at something
  2. Love doing that something

You cannot do that, you have lost me as a viewer. Now pardon me, there's a Top Chef marathon on.

The NSA and Line Drawing

That NSA story is sticking around far longer than I would have thought - cross a threshold of atmospheric pollution unseen in 100,000 years (Source: Scripps Institute)  and it barely even warrants a mention, but if you record the fact that I called my mistress in Peoria, IL at 2:16 am on March 23, you're gonna pay!

The best article I have read on the subject is the piece in the Atlantic today: "Why Should We Even Care If the Government Is Collecting Our Data?" The power imbalance does "feel" like the biggest issue here - not that they're going to break down my door at any moment but the fact that I have to cede my privacy to a hidden organization presided over by a hidden court and congressional oversight behind closed doors.

As a former government employee, I could not be LESS concerned about this. The government is made up of a bunch of people who generally work their 40 hour a week jobs and are terrified of being the ones hung out to dry in a screw up. Nothing would make a government worker more terrified than being the guy identified as the culprit in some malfeasance - they all just want to do their job and, almost universally, in the public interest. If there is one group I do trust my information with, it is these guys.

On the other hand, if there is one group I do not trust my information with, it is the people I necessarily have to engage with in order to have the service in the first place - the telecommunications industry. These folks are constantly terrified of becoming dumb pipes and so need to leverage every bit of my information in order to make a nickel. Sell the fact that I called Japan three times in the last month to JAL so they can send me special discounts in the mail? That probably happens ten times a day, and twenty on Friday. 

Yet here is where we have completely ignored the ridiculousness of our current concerns. You know who ALREADY has 100% of our data? Corporations. I get every call I made every month on my phone bill. They can do data mining up the wazoo. Hell, they don't even NEED to hand the information over to the government - the NSA could just set up a Web service and say, "Hey Verizon, anyone call 212-555-1212 in the past three months? Who else did they call?" and Verizon could hand it over in twenty seconds - TODAY. If we're drawing lines, I'm not sure why the fact that the NSA has the data is the one we are drawing. 

I have a personal opinion and that is that I do trust congress and the FISA courts to be as right as reasonably possible (call it 1 out of 100 were done on completely innocent people). This is probably as good as regular warrants - if I have a greenhouse in the backyard that pulls 100x as much energy as my neighbor and no income because I am independently wealthy, I don't think that a judge would be in the wrong for issuing a warrant of probable cause that I could be growing marijuana. 

I believe the only thing we could do to make this better is just have more judges and more oversight, not stop the activity altogether or make it 100% transparent. Ultimately, the only way to have this work is to have institutions and people that we trust with checks and balances all the way down.

A Lot to Love And Hate in iOS 7

The fact is that iOS 7 is looks great - it feels far more unified and smart than an Apple product has looked or felt in ages. Some examples:

  • Exactly right auto-organization of photos
  • Reader auto paging between reading list - I will DEFINITELY be using this (to the detriment of MANY publishers)
  • Single page of common tools available from every page
  • Lots more little things - I don't even need to detail it here.

There are a few giant problems that I see:

  • Still a bias to form over function. I believe useful can be beautiful, but there is a line, and Apple seems to cross over a lot more than they should. The demo with the Weather is a perfect example - they LOVED having those clouds moving behind the text ("Awesome, it's a cloudy day!"), but now you have words that are half unreadable. Translucency is not done well either - Just look at this, almost entirely unreadable.

  • A complete lock down - still. I love the fact that maps on the computer is tied to maps on the phone, that's a great and integrated feature. But I don't use maps on my phone, I use Waze. And because there are no hooks to allow me to tie in other apps, I'm stuck. Same deal with dialing (Google Voice) or email or messaging, etc. I understand that Apple's not going to make THEIR services available on other devices, but let us use other services on YOUR devices, Apple.
  • The innovation gap - Apple did not innovate on a single software tool, as near as I could see. The auto-organization of photos I compliment above has been in every photo gallery since 2009. Swiping tabs is available in Chrome. Editing full office documents is available in Skydrive (and is useful beyond a Mac). I saw lots of very nice copying and decent integration across platforms, but are we done innovating in software? Hardly.
  • iTunes Radio - are you kidding? Why'd they put even a single engineer on this? There are tons of other platforms out there and now, having to split their focus between downloaded music and streamed, I will be quite surprised if anything comes of this (Note: The previous sentence is available for clam chowder).

Phil Shiller said that nice quote on stage "Can't innovate any more, my ass!", and the funny part is, he's right. IN HARDWARE. That's ultimately why I think these WWDCs have gotten less and less interesting over the years; by and large they are software conferences and that is just not what Apple does that well.

Wake me when they have a new piece of hardware to roll out.

The Question is not IF the NSA Data Mining, but is it LEGAL (HINT: It Is!)

Of all the NSA Data Mining info I've seen recently, the Snowden revelations seem to be the most interesting today. A snippet:

“I had full access to the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world,” he told the Guardian. In a video posted on the website, Snowden claimed that “Any analyst at any time can target anyone … I, sitting at my desk, certainly have the authorities to wiretap anyone — from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President.”


The most important question here is not IF he could do this, but was it LEGAL. For examples, the cops could break into my house while I am away, put mics all over the place and record everything, but that would not make it legal (a neighbor could do the exact same thing, and it would be just as illegal).

If congress was briefed, and the FISA courts were briefed, there does not seem to be anything wrong here - we elected these people and let them create this security kabuki theatre, are we really surprised that it has gone this far? My only problem is that this activity - which I believe actually WILL help reduce threats - is being killed while idiotic stuff - such as the TSA and does NOT help us significantly be more secure - is still kept around.

The biggest issue here is that we just have not drawn the right analogues to the non-digital world. Can a cop camp out in front of my house and watch all the people that go in and out? Yes. Can they do it via a camera they have set up on the corner? Yes. Could one person with access to all the cameras in America record everything and then go back and look at the recordings? Yes - the Boston bombing showed that was correct. So why is the fact that two people called each other (not the content of the calls, but the fact that they spoke) not up for recording?

I'm not ecstatic, but of all the things our government does, this isn't even on the top 10 that I'd kill on day one.

A Microcosm of Our Dickish Society

While traveling across the 520 bridge in Seattle this past weekend, we had the displeasure to get stuck in traffic as they raised the midspan. Here's what the traffic jam looked like...

In one direction:

And the other:

Fantastic. Remember the other direction had the same backup... for 30 minutes.

And what was all this wait for? One fucking sailboat, with a 45+ foot tall mast (I was too far back to take a picture).

I honestly don't care if this was a 1-percenter or an 80-percenter, the thought of one person causing (what I would assume) was at least 1000 people to wait around for a half hour is RIDICULOUS. How does that make any sense in a society? And the government supports it! Why not force all non-commercial boats to make the transition between 9 pm and 6 am? It's just common courtesy people.