The Blog of Curtis Chambers

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

The Cause of Liberal Thinking

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I was driving around the other day and started thinking about politics for some reason.  I think it was perhaps because of all the talk of presidential candidates recently in the news and possibly because I bought both of Barack Obama’s books to read.  My mind tends to wander a lot when I drive and that’s when the best ideas and theories come to me.

Anyway, I realized that the most liberal states in the union are also the richest states, while the most conservative states tend to be the poorest states.  However, the stereotype of rich people is that they’re very conservative.  How is it possible that the rich states are liberal?

Red Blue States

Perhaps it’s not people with lots of money that make California the 5th biggest economy in the world, but the sheer population of it?  However, if that was the case then Texas would be liberal since it has the 2nd largest population of the states and it’s known as one of the most conservative states.

Population doesn’t directly correlate to wealth either.  If that was the case then India would be the second richest country in the world, but that’s not the case.  It does have the 12th biggest GDP in the world, but ranks 132nd in terms of GDP per capita.  Compare that to the United States, which has the biggest GDP in the world and ranks 4th in GDP per capita.  Our wealth is definitely more spread out among the people than in India due to our large middle class, but that still doesn’t seem to answer my question.

Perhaps maybe it is population density that leads to a more liberal state of mind?  Here are the population densities of some of the most liberal cities in America:

  • New York City:  27,083/sq mi
  • San Francisco:  15,834/sq mi
  • Chicago:  12,470/sq mi
  • Boston:  12,327/sq mi
  • Berkeley:  9,823.3/sq mi
  • Seattle:  6,901/sq mi

Major areas that are more conservative like San Diego and Orange County fall way under this mark with population densities of 3,871.5/sq mi and 3,606/sq mi, respectively.  I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule as there are lots of hippie communes in the middle of Oregon, but for the most part I think that a higher population density leads to more liberal thinking.

I’d love to hear other thoughts or ideas on this matter.

Written by Curtis Chambers

September 28, 2007 at 12:43 am

Posted in Politics, Society

How to hack the iPhone with AppTapp

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AppTapp ScreenshotHacking the iPhone was pretty difficult until NullRiver came out with this amazing application called AppTapp that automates the whole process.  Now you just run an installer and it adds Installer.app to your iPhone, which is a graphical package manager similar to apt-get or yum for Linux.  You can choose from a ton of applications that people have developed for it and it automatically updates all the applications when you click on Installer.app on your phone.

Here are the simple instructions for getting 3rd party apps on your iPhone:

  1. Go to the AppTapp beta site and download the appropriate version based on OS and iTunes version
  2. Quit iTunes and double-click the installer to install it onto your phone
  3. You know have a new icon on the Home screen called Installer that you can use to automatically install/update a large number of 3rd party apps.

There’s a lot of really nerdy apps in there such as Python/Perl interpreters, but there’s also some interesting ones.  Here’s a rundown of what I thought of some of them.

  • SummerBoard:  By far the best application for the iPhone.  It allows you to basically change the way the Home screen looks and acts.  I highly recommend it for anyone that is planning on installer more than two 3rd party apps.
  • Community Sources:  Gives you access to other community-maintained repositories, thereby increasing the number of applications you can install.
  • Books:  This application allows you to download eBooks to your iPhone for reading while on the go.  Manybooks.net is a good complement to this application as it has a ton of public domain and Creative Commons books for free that you can save.  The only downside to this application is that you need to somehow upload the books to the phone, but there’s documentation explaining how to do this with either a script or FTP.
  • OpenSSH:  This is a good one to have as it allows you to use SSH to transfer files and run commands.
  • Term-vt100:  This is a good one to have if you need to execute commands on your phone.  I personally use it to administer my Linux boxes with SSH when I’m not in front of my computer.  Running top on it can be fun as well if you’re into seeing what’s going on behind the scenes on your iPhone.
  • iBlackjack:  This game is extremely buggy as it doesn’t have all the rules plugged in yet, but once it gets a little love I’m definitely going to use this to waste a few minutes while waiting in lines.
  • Tap Tap Revolution:  This one just came out and I’m not a huge fan of it, but it definitely shows some creativity in how to use the touch screen for games.

There’s a ton of other packages as well and the list seems to grow daily, but these are the ones I recommend playing around with to see the full potential of the iPhone.

Written by Curtis Chambers

September 13, 2007 at 9:26 pm

Posted in iPhone, Technology

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

It’s Business Time

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It’s Wednesday.  You know what that means right?  That’s right, it’s business time!!!

Written by Curtis Chambers

August 29, 2007 at 11:21 am

Posted in Funny, Video

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

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