Wednesday Nerd Fun: The Setup

The Setup is a cool new site with interviews from all kinds of nerd heroes: designers, photographers, engineers, programmers, and so on. The interviews are all structured basically the same. First, the interviewee is asked about what they do, and they usually answer by describing both their professional and personal lives (note how many of them mention their home office). Second, what hardware do they use? In the interviews I’ve read, this often means a list of 3-4 key devices. Finally, the interviewee mentions the software they use most often. This is where I’ve seen the most variation between interviews.

XKCD on Computer Problems

Here are some fun ones:

Kellan O’Connor, SpaceX

Drew Conway, NYU

James Freeman, Blue Bottle Coffee

Paul Graham, essayist and YCombinator chief

Benjamin Mako Hill, MIT

Paula Pell, NBC (she includes coffee as hardware)

Eric Raymond, open source developer

why, Internet rodent (and author of the Poignant Guide to Ruby)

Stephen Wolfram

The full list is here. Enjoy!

Why Are Hot Dogs So Inexpensive?

Photo credit: Carpe Durham

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of grilling season. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, it exists), Americans will consume about 7 billion hot dogs between now and Labor Day–that’s about 818 per second! The estimated cost of all this is about $1.7 billion, or less than 25 cents per serving.

A large part of this low price is probably due to the quality of the ingredients, but I want to focus on hot dogs purchased from vendors rather than at supermarkets. Street corner hot dog stands have been cropping up around Durham for the last several weeks, and while I haven’t purchased from any, I get the impression that they are quite inexpensive.

A nice stylized example for us to consider comes from a new book entitled X and the City: Modeling Aspects of Urban Life by John Adam. In chapter 4, “Eating in the City,” Adam models how much of a hot dog is meat (which we have already seen is very inexpensive) versus bun:

Consider a cylindrical wiener of length L and radius r surrounded by a bun of the same length and radius R = ar, where a>1. If the bun fits tightly then its volume is

V_b = \pi L (R^2 - r^2) = \pi L r^2 (a^2 - 1) = (a^2 - 1) V_m,

where V_m is the volume of the wiener. If a=3, for example, then V_b=8V_m. But a cheap hotdog bun is mostly air; about 90% air in fact!

When we put the wiener into a bun, its volume is increased dramatically even though the radius is increased only modestly. This is closely related to the reason that many of your desired destinations will be found near the edge of a map (chapter 2) or why frames can so easily dominate a painting.

If you enjoyed this post, you may see more examples from Adam’s book in the coming weeks. Happy Memorial Day!

Henry Farrell on Internet Politics

The paper is mentioned over at the Monkey Cage, and available here. I present it without comment, other than to express agreement with the main points. From the introduction:

How should political scientists study the Internet’s influence on politics? Political science can surely help improve current public arguments about the Internet, which center around a few very general questions. Does the Internet exacerbate political polarization? Does the Internet empower ordinary citizens vis-a-vis political elites? Can the Internet help activists to topple dictators?

However, political science has paid little attention to the Internet until quite recently. This is changing. Scholars are beginning to uncover specific ways in which the Internet may affect politics, and to explore these relationships using both qualitative and quantitative data.

Thinking about the Internet in this way has some important implications. First—and most significantly—it suggests that one should not study the Internet as such. Instead, one should disaggregate it into more discrete phenomena, allowing scholars to ask research questions that they have some hope, however faint, of answering. One might do this in various ways. For example, different Internet-based technologies have different architectures, encouraging or discouraging different kinds of behavior (Lessig 1999). Thus, for example, one might plausibly study differences in linking practices across blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, exploring how variations in architecture and other factors lead to different outcomes. One could build on this to compare the consequences of these technologies with other means of communication, e.g., by comparing the diffusive force of audio-cassettes in the Iranian revolution and specific social media in the Arab Spring (Ritter & Trechsel 2011). Finally, one could begin to make clearer arguments about interactions between the Internet and other media where such media are important.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: 200 Years of Campaign Posters

The book is Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art by W. Ralph Eubanks, publishing director at the Library of Congress. You can hear an interview with Eubanks below, and browse through some of the posters here and here.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

Photo credit: Library of Congress

Brookings: Hybrid University Classes as Good as Traditional Format

We randomly assigned students in seven introductory statistics courses on six public university campuses to take the course in a hybrid format (with machine-guided instruction accompanied by one hour of face-to-face instruction each week) or a traditional format (as it is usually offered by their campus, typically with 3-4 hours of face-to-face instruction each week).

We found that students in the hybrid format did just as well—in terms of pass rates, final exam scores, and performance on a standardized statistics test—as their counterparts in the traditional version of the same course.  This finding of “no effect” may seem disappointing, but we view it as hugely consequential because it shows that fears of online learning leading to worse outcomes are unfounded.  We certainly hope that more sophisticated versions of interactive online courses will produce even better outcomes, but clearly the first test they must pass is that they “do no harm.”

That’s from Matthew M. Chingos’ piece at Brookings, citing a study by ITHAKA. Read his comments here, including a link to the study’s full report. See also my thoughts from earlier in the week.

Update: The Boston Globe gave this some press too.

A Return to Apprenticeship

In his book The Success of Open Source, Steven Weber mentions how companies can integrate open source development into their workflow.* One reason for doing this is the competitive advantage that comes from a widespread, thorough understanding of the code. He then makes this remark:

A company that organized itself to boost the rate at which that kind of knowledge grew among its employees would have, in effect, created a business model that was quite viable in, and familiar to, capitalist economies.

In fact, many big companies try to foster knowledge growth among their employees as a way to gain an edge on their competitors. Google has a speaker series. Until recently, Yahoo! had a pretty good research department. Companies outside of tech do this too. I had a friend in Houston who did training exercises for Shell on learning styles and so forth. Supposedly, Wal-Mart encourages its employees to watch additional training videos while on the clock (see this podcast at about 10:04).

But none of this is a particularly new idea. Flash back to the late 18th century and you’ll see this model, on a smaller scale, all over the place. Back then it was known as “apprenticeship.” A professional, such as a silversmith, would hire a young man on a 4-6 year contract. During the first year or two, this would require a substantial investment in time on the part of the silversmith to train the young man. But by the fourth or fifth year, the apprentice would be able to repay the cost of his education by providing cheap labor. This arrangement is still around today, and is particularly widespread in Germany.

In the US, the apprenticeship model is most familiar to academics, but we have gotten away from this model in much of higher education.** Rather than providing practical training for a career, many college degrees serve only as a signal that the individual in question can learn. Thus, in many fields on-the-job training and hands-on experience are more valuable than degrees. In this type of environment you see widespread unemployment among recent college graduates.

This brings me to the key point of the post. The main shortcoming (as I see it) of new online education sites like Udacity and Coursera is not that they are a departure from the traditional model. It’s that they don’t depart far enough. In seeking to be reputable, they stay too close to the lecture format, simply exchanging in-person for video. This is not true innovation. The true innovation will come when they learn to scale the apprenticeship experience. This is what lectures were first meant to do. It took several hundred years to reach a level of affluence at which enough people were attending college that we could find the scale limits of this model, but we have reached that point.

Apprenticeship was a one-to-one, hands-on education. Lecturing is a one-to-many, hands off teaching style. With modern technology, there is an opportunity for a many-to-many, hands on approach. This will mean conflicting influences, competing ideas, and room for independent thought. A marketplace of ideas, indeed.

See also: Peter Thiel on last night’s “60 minutes.” (this post has been in the works since before that interview aired)


*Notwithstanding here Eric Raymond’s point that open \rightarrow corporate is the wrong direction for thinking about the flow of open source.

**Graduate training is the exception.

Stadiums, Bazaars, and Signalling

“Imagine going to a stadium to see a soccer game,” says Ozevin. “Would you enjoy the game without shouting? Bazaars are just like stadiums, if you can’t shout there is no joy.

There’s also very little information, or (in the jargon of political science and economics) signalling. Officials in Istanbul seem not to care about the value of information–in fact, they are imposing costs on it:

“I swear its nothing but rubbish,” Karlidag says. “When we shout we attract customers. If I’m selling something for seven lira a kilo, and someone else for nine, they can come and buy from me if it suits them.”

City officials say they will respond to noise complaints first by giving vendors warnings. Then there will be fines. And finally, vendors could lose their licenses.

It’s unclear where the impetus for the new regulations came from since, according to the story, “most shoppers don’t seem to mind” the noise from vendors’ shouting. It is notable that although Turkish officials have been remarkably successful at regulating numerous aspects of public life, they have yet to ban another form of signalling–the call to prayer by muezzins at each mosque five times daily (although some visitors to Istanbul find the practice a bit grating).

One possible explanation for the shouting ban alluded to in the story is that shouting is seen as the behavior of poor, uneducated people.

“When the level of education rises, the more enlightened people are, the more quietly they speak,” Dericioglu says. “The sellers are so economically deprived that think they will get what they want just by shouting loudly.”

In fact, regulations in many countries seem to be motivated by the desire of wealthier and more educated people to make the lives of poor people look more like the rich think they “should.” (I can’t remember whether I’ve written on this before, but if not, someone remind me to write a post about Florida housing regulations to illustrate this.)

As pointed out by Mr. Karlidag’s statement above, the ban on shouting–and consequently, on the free flow of information–within the bazaar will lead to consumers having less information. This may in turn lead them to make inefficient decisions, such as paying too much for anchovies. (For more on the information content of prices, see this post.) Economists call this an imperfect market. A bizarre bazaar, if you will.

Further reading: The Wall Street Journal also covered this story.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: Anything Becomes a Touchpad

Tired of your boring old touchpad? Why not use Play-Doh instead? Or bananas? That’s what MaKey Makey allows you to do, and Gizmodo describes it thusly:

With their Makey Makey open source hardware project, Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum have taken such touch interaction to a much more entertaining and inventive degree….

Based on research at MIT Media Lab‘s Lifelong Kindergarten and two years in the making, the Makey Makey printed board features six inputs on the front for attaching alligator clips. These are assigned to the arrow keys and space bar on a computer keyboard and the left button of a mouse. The other end of the clip can be secured to anything that conducts even the tiniest amount of electricity.

With a website, game or learning program loaded into the USB-connected computer, a user would then grab a cable running from the earth strip with one hand and make contact with the chosen object with the other. The upshot of all this wizardry is that… a short message made from alphabet soup can type an email or status update when touched.

Schelling’s Model of Segregation (Python)

Over the weekend I implemented a version of the agent-based model from Thomas Schelling’s 1971 paper in Python. Schelling’s story about segregation is simple: there are two colors of agents, happiness is based on whether two or more of your neighbors are the same color as you, and you move if you are unhappy.

The model has been studied thoroughly by smarter people than me, and is included as one of the early discussions in Scott Page’s Model Thinking course. My instantiation comes from an exercise in chapter 10 of Allen Downey’s Think Complexity, which is accompanied by the following comments:

You might not be surprised to hear that this model leads to some segregation, but you might be surprised by the degree. Fairly quickly, clusters of similar agents appear. The clusters grow and coalesce over time until there are a small number of large clusters and most agents live in homogeneous neighborhoods.
If you did not know the process and only saw the result, you might assume that the agents were racist, but in fact all of them would be perfectly happy in a mixed neighborhood. Since they prefer not to be greatly outnumbered, they might be considered xenophobic at worst. Of course, these agents are a wild simplification of real people, so it may not be appropriate to apply these descriptions at all.

Here is a screenshot from the running of my model:

Screenshot from my implementation of Schelling’s model in Python

Unhappy agents are represented by X’s, happy ones by O’s. The only substantial departure from the exercise here is that I base happiness on four neighbors (up, down, left, right), rather than eight (including the diagonals) because I misread the instructions the first time. This departure makes the agents less tolerant than in Schelling’s original. The neighborhood shown above is 10×10, but the code should be generalizable. Ninety percent of the houses are filled, which leaves some empty ones for moving around.

My code is here, including some comments indicating planned improvements. For the pointer to Downey’s book, I thank Josh Cutler.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: Folding Air

A few years ago, on a Christmas break, I decided to learn how to create balloon animals. It made me some money during undergrad, in addition to being a fairly random party trick.

My skills are a bit rusty, but Larry Moss and Kate Cheatle are all-pro. Catherine Stratton made the duo the subject of her recent film, The Fine Art of Folding Air. They also run a wonderfully titled business, Airigami, whose portfolio you can view here.