Category Archives: Science

Embrace Diversity, Erase Uniformity

Guest Post by Jurgen Appelo, author of the Managing Software Development blog.

Five years ago, when I started working for my current employer, the entire organization (about 30 people) consisted only of 20-something white straight single males. The atmosphere was what you would expect from such an environment: conversations on football/soccer, lewd jokes, the smell of beer, and trash in every corner. In short, the perfect place to work, if you were a 20-something white straight single male.

Then the organization started changing. The subculture of 20-something white straight single males in our region could not keep up with the rapid growth of our company. And so the women arrived. And the married guys. And people with kids. And people older than 40. And people from all sorts of ethnic, religious, sexual, and disabled minorities. Before we knew it, the organization had grown to 200 people, and the group of 20-something white straight single males had dwindled to just another minority. And it’s still a great place to work, particularly for the large majority of people representing one or two minorities.

Diversity is Important
In biological ecosystems, genetic diversity is one of the most important principles. Biodiversity (the variation of species) is the most obvious form of it, but there’s also diversity within species themselves. Did you know that honey bees are slightly different from each other? That’s how they regulate the temperature in their beehives. When a hive gets too cold, the bees start huddling together, buzzing their wings. And when it gets too hot, the bees spread out and they start fanning their wings. Now, when the bees would respond to the same specific temperatures, they would all start buzzing or fanning their wings at the same time, resulting in a wildly oscillating temperature in the hive. Therefore, to improve stability, nature has made sure that the bees respond to different temperature levels. When the temperature rises, one by one the bees will start fanning their wings. And the more bees join in, the slower the temperature will rise, until it stops completely. Diversity among bees smoothes and stabilizes the temperature in the beehive.

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Does the Data Deluge Make the Scientific Method Obsolete?

The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete by Chris Anderson

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

So proclaimed statistician George Box 30 years ago, and he was right. But what choice did we have? Only models, from cosmological equations to theories of human behavior, seemed to be able to consistently, if imperfectly, explain the world around us. Until now. Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don’t have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don’t have to settle for models at all.

Speaking at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, offered an update to George Box’s maxim: “All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them.”

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

see update, below. Norvig was misquoted, he agrees with Box’s maxim

I must say I am not at all convinced that a new method without theory ready to supplant the existing scientific method. Now I can’t find peter Norvig’s exact words online (come on Google – organize all the world’s information for me please). If he said that using massive stores of data to make discoveries in new ways radically changing how we can learn and create useful systems, that I believe. I do enjoy the idea of trying radical new ways of viewing what is possible.

Practice Makes Perfect: How Billions of Examples Lead to Better Models (summary of his talk on the conference web site):

In this talk we will see that a computer might not learn in the same way that a person does, but it can use massive amounts of data to perform selected tasks very well. We will see that a computer can correct spelling mistakes, translate from Arabic to English, and recognize celebrity faces about as well as an average human—and can do it all by learning from examples rather than by relying on programming.

Related: Will the Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete?Pragmatism and Management KnowledgeData Based Decision Making at GoogleSeeing Patterns Where None ExistsManage what you can’t measureData Based BlatheringUnderstanding DataWebcast on Google Innovation
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Multitasking Decreases Productivity

The problems with multitasking are becoming more and more well know, thankfully. Here is another article on the lower productivity multitasking produces – Multitasking Madness Decreases Productivity by Barbara Bartlein:

In a recent study by Eric Horvitz and the University of Illinois, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They often strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment web sites.

These findings are similar to those of David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said Meyer. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

“Many people delusionally believe they’re good at this,” he says. “The problem is that we only have one brain and it doesn’t work that way. In reality, nobody can effectively do more than one remotely complicated thing at a time.”

Related: The Siren Song of MultitaskingMulti-Tasking: Why Projects Take so LongFlow (the opposite of multitasking)

Fairness Matters

Sense of Fairness Affects Outlook, Decisions

Burnout has been long associated with being overworked and underpaid, but psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter found that these were not the crucial factors. The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not was the whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

Their research on fairness dovetails with work by other researchers showing that humans care a great deal about how they are being treated relative to others. In many ways, fairness seems to matter more than absolute measures of how well they are faring — people seem willing to endure tough times if they have the sense the burden is being shared equally, but they quickly become resentful if they feel they are being singled out for poor treatment.

If the sum is $100, for example, the first person might offer to give away $25 and keep $75 for himself. If the second person agrees, the money is divided accordingly. But if the second person rejects the deal, neither one gets anything.

If people cared only about absolute rewards, then Person B ought to accept whatever Person A offers, because getting even $1 is better than nothing. But experiments show that many people will reject the deal if they feel the first person is dividing the money unfairly.

Related: Obscene CEO PayRespect for People and Understanding PsychologyWhy Pay Taxes or be HonestThe Illusion of UnderstandingThe Psychology of Too Much Choice

Packaging Improvement

McDonald’s Branding Makes Food Tastier for Tots

Researchers at Stanford University have found that children tend to rate food that is wrapped up in McDonald’s-branded paper as tasting better than the same food wrapped in plain paper — a finding that suggests that even the youngest consumers are heavily influenced by advertising. The new study was released Monday in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The study had 63 children, aged 3 to 5 years old, tasting five pairs of identical foods and beverages — one in McDonald’s wrapping and the other in unbranded packaging. The researchers then asked them a simple question: “Which one tastes better?” An overwhelming number of the children said the food in the McDonald’s wrapping was tastier.

Oddly enough, this applied even to vegetables and milk. Sixty-one percent of the children in the study preferred the taste of carrots and 54 percent preferred the taste of milk if they were reminded by the packaging that it came from McDonald’s.

This is another reminder that tackling problems directly is not always the best strategy. The packaging doesn’t actually change the taste, but really it is not the taste that is likely a concern but rather the perception of taste. To me this is very similar to the studies on people preferring wine they are told costs more.

Ignore psychology at your peril: in marketing and in management. Deming’s management system include 4 interdependent areas: understanding variation, systems thinking, theory of knowledge and understanding psychology.

Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences (I think this is the study referenced in the article though it was published in August 2007 – John).

Related: Indian researcher shows most people do judge a drink by its containerMarketing in a Lean CompanyThe Psychology of Too Much ChoiceBe Careful What You Measure

Drug Price Crisis

In 2005 I posted about some of the problems with drug pricing. It is nice to find at least a couple of people at MIT that want to have MIT focus research on the public good instead of private profit. As I have mentioned too many universities now act like they are for-profit drug or research companies. That is wrong. Drug companies can do so, institutions with purported higher purposes should not be driven to place advancing science below profiting the institution.

Solving the drug price crisis

The mounting U.S. drug price crisis can be contained and eventually reversed by separating drug discovery from drug marketing and by establishing a non-profit company to oversee funding for new medicines, according to two MIT experts on the pharmaceutical industry.

Following the utility model, Finkelstein and Temin propose establishing an independent, public, non-profit Drug Development Corporation (DDC), which would act as an intermediary between the two new industry segments — just as the electric grid acts as an intermediary between energy generators and distributors.

The DDC also would serve as a mechanism for prioritizing drugs for development, noted Finkelstein. “It is a two-level program in which scientists and other experts would recommend to decision-makers which kinds of drugs to fund the most. This would insulate development decisions from the political winds,” he said.

I see their idea as one worth trying. Lets see how it works. Their book: Reasonable Rx – Solving the Drug Price Crisis by Stan Finkelstein and Peter Temin

Related: USA Spent $2.1 Trillion on Health Care in 2006Measuring the Health of NationsAntibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes$600 Million for Basic Biomedical Researcharticles on improving the health care system

Inside Honda’s Brain

Inside Honda’s brain by Alex Taylor III

why is Honda playing with robots? Or, for that matter, airplanes? Honda is building a factory in North Carolina to manufacture the Hondajet, a sporty twin-engine runabout that carries six passengers. Or solar energy? Honda has established a subsidiary to make and market thin-film solar-power cells. Or soybeans? Honda grows soybeans in Ohio so that it can fill up cargo containers being shipped back to Japan. The list goes on. All this sounds irrelevant to a company that built some 24 million engines last year and stuffed them into everything from cars to weed whackers.

Since 2002 its revenues have grown nearly 40%, to $94.8 billion. Its operating profits, with margins ranging from 7.3% to 9.1%, are among the best in the industry.

The wellspring of Honda’s creative juices is Honda R&D, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda Motor. Based in Saitama, west of Tokyo, R&D engineers create every product that Honda makes – from lawn mowers to motorcycles and automobiles – and pursue projects like Asimo and Hondajet on the side. Defiantly individualistic, R&D insists on devising its own solutions and shuns outside alliances. On paper it reports to Honda Motor, but it is powerful enough to have produced every CEO since the company was founded in 1948.

The engineer in Fukui [Honda’s president and CEO] cannot help but be intrigued by what his former colleagues are up to, and his office is only a few steps away from Kato’s. But even with the CEO just down the hall, says Kato, “We want to look down the road. We do not want to be influenced by the business.”

mistakes like the Insight are also the exception. R&D has provided Honda with a long list of engineering firsts that consumers liked, including the motorcycle airbag, the low-polluting four-stroke marine engine, and ultralow-emission cars.

Related: Toyota as HomebuilderS&P 500 CEOs – More Engineering GraduatesMore on Non-Auto ToyotaAsimo Robot, Running and Climbing StairsApplied ResearchGoogle Engineering Energy

Car Powered Using Compressed Air

car powered using compressed air

Jules Verne predicted cars would run on air. The Air Car is making that a reality. The car would be powered by compressed air. Certainly seem like an interesting idea. Air car ready for production:

Refueling is simple and will only take a few minutes. That is, if you live nearby a gas station with custom air compressor units. The cost of a fill up is approximately $2.00. If a driver doesn’t have access to a compressor station, they will be able to plug into the electrical grid and use the car’s built-in compressor to refill the tank in about 4 hours.

The car is said to have a driving range of 125 miles so by my calculation it would cost about 1.6 cents per mile. A car that gets 31 mpg would use 4 gallons to go 124 miles. At $3 a gallon for gas, the cost is $12 for fuel or about 9.7 cents per mile. I didn’t notice anything about maintenance costs. I don’t see any reason why the Air Car would cost more to maintain than a normal car. Five-seat concept car runs on air

An engineer has promised that within a year he will start selling a car that runs on compressed air, producing no emissions at all in town.

Tata is the only big firm he’ll license to sell the car – and they are limited to India. For the rest of the world he hopes to persuade hundreds of investors to set up their own factories, making the car from 80% locally-sourced materials.

“Imagine we will be able to save all those components traveling the world and all those transporters.” He wants each local factory to sell its own cars to cut out the middle man and he aims for 1% of global sales – about 680,000 per year. Terry Spall from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers says: “I really hope he succeeds. It is a really brave experiment in producing a sustainable car.”

Now does that sound like the Toyota Production System to you? It should. If I were an executive at Toyota I would sure examine this to see if it really is as promising as it looks. And if it is Toyota sure has plenty of cash and the management practice to make a very compelling case for allowing Toyota to produce this globally. The engineers desires closely match what Toyota has learned. Both seek to eliminate the waste of transportation (friction).

Related: Click Fraud = Friction for GoogleManufacturing Takes off in IndiaElectric Automobiles

Losing Consumers’ Trust

Last week their was a recall of 143 million pounds of beef in the USA. Lets take a short systemic view at what is going on. The public has an interest in a safe food supply which is difficult to enforce through caveat emptor (buyer beware). So this is a natural situation for government regulation (to protect the public interest) – plus it relates to public health which is another natural for government regulation.

The USDA regulates the industry and puts in place rules as new threats emerge. So a few years ago they instituted rules that if an animal can’t walk after the USDA pre-death inspection they be re-inspected “largely as a precaution against bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease .” It seems hard to argue with that plan. If the pressures to maximize profits (assuring every cow is processed) exceed the desire to take precautions to ensure the safety of customers the risk of losing the trust of consumers is great.

There have been several instances, that have been made public, which call into question how effective the system is at preventing self interest from endangering the food supply. That then calls into question the safety of all meat that is part of that system. Many in the industry seem not to realize that they will be judged by the failures of any in the industry. And in my view, it is in their interests to have strong protections industry-wide.

The export market for meat is large. For political reasons some countries aim to protect local farmers and ranchers (the USA is a huge subsidizer of farmers and ranchersSugar Industry Quotas). And when the system continually shows that bad practices are allowed to continue it makes it a very easy decision to not allow the import of meat. Why would a country want to import food from a system that fails to follow food safety standards (especially if politically that is what they want to do – this provides them a pretty darn good reason to do what they want).
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