The Blog of Curtis Chambers

Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Infophilia and the Convenience of Technology

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After reading Brad’s post on Infophilia, I can’t help but think that I have the exact same symptoms. I’m addicted to learning new things and acquiring information. I can’t stop and if I run out of things to read in my RSS reader, I just start reading anything I can get my hands on, even if it’s something as mundane as the back of a Lysol bottle. Here’s a few of the things I’ve been actively working on learning in the last week using a variety of books, news articles, software products, museums, and websites:

  • French
  • Japanese
  • Barack Obama’s history
  • JFK’s history
  • Random facts about Boston and Cambridge
  • How to alter the autocomplete functionality in Drupal
  • How to analyze football stats to produce the ultimate fantasy football team
  • Swarming algorithms involved in various methods of P2P file transfers
  • How to make applesauce

Applesauce

*The above picture is an artist rendition of how Amy makes applesauce

A lot of people joke with me about how much I’m on the computer, but it really is just a means to achieve this information overload in a more convenient and efficient way. I remember in elementary school and junior high, I would spend the entirety of my time after school at the library reading until it closed and then go home and log on to BBSes and the early versions of the World Wide Web to read more. I’ve always had this constant desire to consume information in its various forms and the Internet just makes it even easier, especially with news.

Google Reader tells me that in the last month I read an average of about 140 stories a day. While I believe that RSS readers such as Google Reader have made it so much easier to keep up with the news compared to traditional websites and newspapers, there is still a long way to go in the social news world before it is truly efficient. While I read an average of 140 stories a day, I only shared/starred an average of 6 stories per day. That means that only 4% of the stories that were delivered to me were good enough to share with others or keep in my stash of bookmarks. I don’t have any statistics on how many stories in an average newspaper that people enjoy, but I’d imagine it’s somewhere near there. But the computer is a tool that should make this process more efficient, and I’m hoping that with the coming generation of social news services that analyze your reading patterns to deliver more relevant stories, that the number will increase to at least 50%.

But it’s not just limited to news. Technology also makes other types of information more readily available. For example, Rosetta Stone makes it incredibly easy to learn a new language in the same way that you learned your first language and you can do it anywhere you have a computer. There’s also eBook readers that allow you to hold as many books as you want in a single device. I have a few books loaded into my iPhone so that when I’m standing around waiting for a bus or subway I can just whip it out and read right there.

I do have one fear associated with this Infophilia (disorder perhaps?). I notice that the more I learn and the more information I consume, the more my memories of the past seem to fade away. It’s as if my brain is a hard drive that’s running at capacity and keeps deleting old files to make room for new ones. While I love having all the latest and greatest information, there are some older memories that I’d really prefer not to lose. The fact that my digital photo library only starts at 2001 is rather disheartening, as I’m afraid that at some point in the future I’ll have to rely on it to trigger memories of the past.

So my challenge to Brad in his quest to unlock the secrets of the human brain is to find a way to unlock the other 92% of my brain that I supposedly don’t use. I could use the extra gigabytes.

Written by Curtis Chambers

October 9, 2007 at 1:56 pm

Lobbying

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I just read an article about Apple spending $720,000 on lobbying the US government for patent reform and technology education.  While I completely agree with the causes Apple is lobbying for, I really dislike the fact that the only way to get anything done in our government is with large sums of money.  Isn’t the government supposed to serve the people and not the money?

I understand that it obviously isn’t possible to hear every single voice in the country, as there are only 100 members of the Senate and 435 members of the House of Representatives that collectively represent the interests of 300 million people.  However, we have the technology that could make it possible for this to happen.

Think about this:  Google serves up answers for 91 million queries per day.  Imagine some sort of human-powered oracle that answered any question you had in any language in less than a second.  Just thinking about a human-powered version of that boggles the mind, yet Google does it effortlessly every single day for the world.  This is the kind of solution we need to embrace for telling our governments what we want and helping to make political decisions.

We already have the right to vote on politicians and select propositions, but lobbying is how those propositions make it to the ballot.  Why do only the people with money get to decide what appears on those ballots?  It’s like we have this false sense of participation in our government because we get to vote on things, yet we didn’t get a say in what issues were worth voting on.

I understand that the United States is a republic and not a direct democracy, and that is why these things are the way they are.  It even makes sense that it is a republic because when the country was founded in the 18th century it was completely absurd to think that everyone’s voice could be a part of the process.  But now that we have the means to aggregate the collective opinions of the populace, should that system perhaps change?

Note that I’m not advocating ochlocracy or anything where the people just make all the decisions and self-govern.  I think James Madison had it right in Federalist Paper No. 10 when he said that government should protect its citizens from factions and that a direct democracy would value the opinions of the majority and sacrifice individual liberties.  What I’m proposing is just a solution that can aggregate the thoughts and opinions of the populace and make those opinions known to the politicians so that they can make more informed decisions.  What I want is to see headlines like “720,000 people support patent reform” as opposed to “$720,000 supports patent reform.”  Something like the Facebook Causes application but on a more global and accessible level.

Written by Curtis Chambers

September 3, 2007 at 1:37 pm

Bureaucracy vs. GTD (Getting Things Done)

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*Note: This is not a post about David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done framework, I just like the acronym.

I’ve worked at a variety of companies ranging from large 20,000 employee behemoths to small 15 person startups.  One of the things that’s always come across my mind is the direct correlation between company size and bureaucracy.  It really bothers me that as a company grows, its bureaucracy increases and a subsequent lack of productivity follows.  This inevitably leads to the company being overtaken by a smaller, faster competitor.

Everyone says that the increase in bureaucracy isn’t a choice, but rather a byproduct of a growing organization.  But why is this the case?  Is it because of conflicting personalities, too many cooks in the kitchen or just laziness?  At my first engineering job, my boss used to say “in a given 8 hour day, you only really work for 4 hours.”  I thought it was just him that thought that way, but I’ve seen the same thing occur at every place I’ve worked at since then.  I actually think that it’s a function of company size.  In fact, I made up this graph to illustrate the phenomenon using completely made up data.

Employee Productivity as a Function of Company Size

Google is the first company I’ve seen that’s really tried defying this, as they realize that once they become big and slow that someone else will beat them at their own game.  They’ve done this by keeping teams small and isolated on their own projects.  It also helps that it feels like a nerd version of Disneyland when you walk around the campus, but the small teams is the real reason.

One such example is the team of a Google product that I use every day, Google Reader.  It’s composed of 9 people.  That’s a pretty small team for a product like that, but it’s a great product and they get things done.

In the same vein, I’ve been working on my own for a couple months now, and the amount that I’ve been able to get done in that time is leaps and bounds more than I’ve been able to get done at any company, even the smaller outfits.  With the absence of meetings, conference calls and commuting, I’ve been able to work half as many hours with twice the productivity and the freedom to travel all over the world.  It even improves the quality of my work because I can work when I want and where I want, which does wonders for an engineer’s mind.

All of this makes me wonder why organizations hire so many more people than they need.  However, if companies only hired as many people as they needed to function, we’d probably have insanely high unemployment rates.  In all honesty, I think the real solution would be to find some sort of new management paradigm that allows for growth without loss of productivity.  You’d think that with all this grand new technology that facilitates better, more open communication that we could reduce some of the headaches and optimize things, right?  Perhaps it’s the people that are the problem.

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 23, 2007 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Culture, Society, Thoughts

The Downfall of Higher Education

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Ever since Russia launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, America has been obsessed with the bachelor’s degree.  The combination of World War II and the Cold War produced an innate fear of being second place in the new emerging world of science.  My father once told me that right around when he was in high school was when the big push for everyone to go to college started, as he didn’t really know anyone older that had a degree from a university.  However, I argue that the American university will not hold the value that it once did in the coming future.  The value of a bachelor’s degree is becoming less valuable every day.

Of course, I must preface all of this by stating that I myself do not have a bachelor’s degree.  I dropped out of college with 5 classes left in order to start a company back in 2003.  I came back and finished 3 more classes in 2007.  Part of me wants to finish the remaining classes, but I have this passion to create things and help progress society, and finishing school doesn’t really help me accomplish these goals; it only slows me down.

So back to my point.  The reason I see the bachelor’s degree becoming less valuable is because I feel that it’s starting to reach its saturation point.  Before the 20th century, the masses were not allowed to attend universities.  The major push for everyone to have a bachelor’s degree has destroyed the scarcity that once gave the degree its value.

Note that I don’t believe that education lacks value, just the piece of paper that comes along with it.  Despite my lack of a degree, I spend a majority of my day reading as many articles, papers, blogs and books as I can get my hands on, thus increasing my intellectual value.  Yet I lack this piece of paper that supposedly defines my intelligence, which everyone claims is the only rite of passage into a career.  This notion strikes me as odd because I’ve been working in my industry for 8 years now without one…

My lack of faith in the bachelor’s degree wouldn’t be so stated if I hadn’t actually been to college and seen what it has really become.  A degree used to mean something when only the truly intellectually curious pursued them.  I feel that undergraduate majors do a great job of preparing the student for graduate school in the subject they study.  Yet a great majority of the students have no plans at all to attend graduate school and only went to school in the first place because they were told they wouldn’t get a job otherwise.  Let me tell you, almost no jobs actually utilize the skills you acquired as an undergraduate.   I’d even argue that a year or two of intensive training in a particular subject (similar to a trade school) would prepare you better for a job, so why does the bachelor’s degree exist?

The bachelor’s degree exists for the same reason the SAT exists.  With increasing numbers of people coming in and out of the massive education system, big business (which includes universities themselves) need some sort of indicator of whether a person is capable.  However, standardized measures are never accurate measures and I’m not sure why no one has come up with a way to rid society of these inaccurate forms of self-evaluation.  With all the technology we have today, we shouldn’t have to endure broad generalizations anymore. I’m apparently not the only one that feels this way about the state of higher education. The wikipedia page on the university contains the following gems:

In his study of the American university since World War II, The Knowledge Factory, Stanley Aronowitz argues that the American university has been besieged by growing unemployment issues, the pressures of big business on the land grant university, as well as the political passivity and ivory tower naivete of American academics.

In a somewhat more theoretical vein, the late Bill Readings contends in his 1995 study, The University in Ruins, that the university around the world has been hopelessly commodified by globalization and the bureaucratic non-value of “excellence.”  His view is that the university will continue to linger on as an increasingly consumerist, ruined institution until or unless we are able to conceive of advanced education in transnational ways that can move beyond both the national subject and the corporate enterprise.

The ironic thing about these two studies is that they were done by professors!  If the professors at these universities have such a bleak outlook on the system that they’ve devoted their entire lives to, isn’t that a sign that there’s something wrong with the system?

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 21, 2007 at 12:06 am

Digital Communism

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A trend that I’ve noticed with the rise of “Web 2.0″ and open source software is something that I call Digital Communism.  The concept is similar to regular Communism in the sense that everyone pitches in for the good of the populace, but doesn’t relate to economic systems as much as it does our digital lifestyles and software.  Here I will present the different classes of users that power Digital Communism so that I can better illustrate what it all means.

Contributors

There are many ways that people contribute to the Digital Collective.  People write articles in Wikipedia, upload videos to YouTube and submit news articles to Digg.  None of the people doing this get any sort of financial gain, but rather do it because they want to share their knowledge and media with others.  In reality, a lot of it is probably powered by the narcissism of the current generation wanting to be noticed in an increasingly anonymous society, but it’s a different type of currency than money; it’s social currency.

In the realm of open-source software, these are the people that submit their code to the world for scrutiny and improvement.  They are people like Linus Torvalds, who started a small software project as a hobby that eventually turned into Linux, which is the operating system that powers the Web 2.0 revolution.

Contributors make up about 1% of a particular community’s user base.

Participants

There are also many users that don’t necessarily contribute to the Digital Collective, but they actively participate by leaving opinions, correcting mistakes or tagging items.  Rather than create uniquely new content, they edit, critique and help organize the contributions of others.  In some communities, this has the great benefit of improving the work and offering alternative perspectives.  In others, it is not so valuable.

Participants in the open-source community are extremely valuable as they find and report bugs, help fix bugs or even assist with documentation.  Some might say that the participants are even more valuable than the contributors as they help improve the quality of the raw contribution.

Participants make up about 10% of a particular community’s user base.

Passive Users

The major critique of Communism is that not everyone does their fair share and that holds true in Digital Communism.  The passive users of the Digital Collective are the ones that absorb the information but do not interact with it.  They read, they watch and they listen but they do not want to be heard.  However, that does not mean they are without value.  Without consumers, production would be for naught.

Users in the open-source community give a particular product a base of users, which increases its clout as a product.  Firefox claims to have almost 400 million downloads, which gives it a lot more exposure than if it was only used by some guy in his basement.

Also, over time users tend to become participants, who then in turn become contributors.  One example of this is Facebook, which used memcached to make its site faster, but then needed to make it better so they fixed some bugs and now they’re the biggest contributor of code to the project.

Passive users make up about 89% of a particular community’s user base.

As you can see, the different types of users reflect the different statuses of the users.  In fact, the distribution of users sort of resembles the distribution of the medieval caste system.  Back then, you had one ruler with a small group of advisors and aristocrats, and a huge lower class of peasants working in the fields.

The industrial revolution then brought many of the lower class up into the middle class.  The real question is if the same will happen with Digital Communism.  If a large majority of the users start participating with the media, what would happen?  It could either trigger the Golden Age of Information or perhaps go the complete other way and degrade the quality of information by saturation.  It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 15, 2007 at 6:11 pm

WTF LAX?

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I’m currently sitting in the United terminal at LAX waiting for my flight, and the plane that’s currently at my gate is going to Orange County.  Has traffic in LA become so bad that flying from LA to Orange County is a faster alternative to driving?  Let’s find out.

Google Maps says the distance between the two airports is 41.5 miles and would take 47 minutes to drive.  United says the flight itself takes 40 minutes, but factoring in getting to the airport an hour early for security and picking up baggage, the entire trip via airplane should take somewhere around 110 minutes.  It’s obvious that it’s much faster to drive, so all I want to know is…

Who are these people that I’m watching board right now!?!  And why does United even offer this flight to begin with??

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 7, 2007 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Thoughts, WTF

Mainstream media’s lack of journalistic integrity

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I saw this video today and had to write about it.  It’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the mainstream media in today’s society.  Before I go into my rant, I’ll post the video here so you can watch it as well.

Now I’ve never done this drug or any other hallucinogenics so I can’t really claim to have personal knowledge about them, but this story is completely over-dramatized.  Here’s a few reasons to question this story:

  1. The medical examiner found no traces of salvinorin in his system.
  2. He was on an acne medication that has been linked to depression.
  3. His parents were divorced, which has been shown to lead to higher depression rates.
  4. He was an alcohol user, a demographic that has nearly twice the suicide rate of non-alcohol users.

I’m not saying this wasn’t a tragic event or that his mother was at fault.  This post is mostly a criticism of the hysteria that mainstream media produces by distorting and/or omitting the facts.  They wanted to produce a sensationalist piece that got under people’s skin, so they only showed the things that would “shock and awe.”  The irony of it is that the local Delaware news presented all the facts and what happened, while the mainstream media outlets (CNN, ABC, NBC and USA Today) took the story and reported it as a “salvia suicide”, even though there are no documented cases of fatalities from salvia use.

In reality, the mother believes that it was a wide variety of things that caused her son’s death, which is probably the truth.  CNN also took this quote from his journal:

“Salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in the interdimensional time and space….  Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless.  Final point: Us earthly humans are nothing.”

Deducing that salvia killed him from that quote is purely a red herring.  Anyone with any sort of intelligence has probably thought the same thought at one point in their life, even without drugs.  You’d probably come to the same conclusion from reading a Stephen Hawking book, but no one ever blames that for killing people.

In the end, it seems that the news is becoming more and more of an entertainment source than a source of information. The well-informed are turning to other sources to get their information.

Written by Curtis Chambers

July 30, 2007 at 8:23 pm

Posted in Culture, Media, Thoughts, Video

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