There is a number for that ...

Published: Sun 30 December 2018

Numbers are clean and precise.

Life is fuzzy and poetic.

We should develop the muscle to appreciate both. After all, we are born with a left brain for logic and a right brain for intuition. Why should we only use one?

Contrary to popular belief that numbers are cold and cruel. I think numbers give us a sense of agency. Instead of feeling powerless and at the mercy of a giant random number generator in the sky, a good model with a few numbers will help us see the world clearer. As an individual, we'll know what to do with our energy and our limited life.

Here are a couple of cool examples. Each takes a thorny question with substantial social and moral implications and comes up with an experiment to put a definite number on them. I find the designs fascinating and the numbers revealing some fascinating aspects of the human psyche. I hope you enjoy them too.

First. How much is Facebook worth to a user? Answer: $1000 per year. Quoting from the paper:

Facebook, the online social network, has more than 2 billion global users. Because those users do not pay for the service, its benefits are hard to measure. We report the results of a series of three non-hypothetical auction experiments where winners are paid to deactivate their Facebook accounts for up to one year. Though the populations sampled and the auction design differ across the experiments, we consistently find the average Facebook user would require more than $1000 to deactivate their account for one year. While the measurable impact Facebook and other free online services have on the economy may be small, our results show that the benefits these services provide for their users are large.

Second. Whose life worth more? An infant or a pregnant woman? A dog or a a criminal? Tough questions, huh? Well, there is an answer to that. Infant. And dog.

Even more interesting is that this is also a global preference, which means that it's the same across 233 countries and cultures. (Here is a direct link to the graph. )

Quoting from the paper on Nature:

With the rapid development of artificial intelligence have come concerns about how machines will make moral decisions, and the major challenge of quantifying societal expectations about the ethical principles that should guide machine behaviour. To address this challenge, we deployed the Moral Machine, an online experimental platform designed to explore the moral dilemmas faced by autonomous vehicles. This platform gathered 40 million decisions in ten languages from millions of people in 233 countries and territories. Here we describe the results of this experiment. First, we summarize global moral preferences. Second, we document individual variations in preferences, based on respondents’ demographics. Third, we report cross-cultural ethical variation, and uncover three major clusters of countries. Fourth, we show that these differences correlate with modern institutions and deep cultural traits. We discuss how these preferences can contribute to developing global, socially acceptable principles for machine ethics. All data used in this article are publicly available.


Three ways to play monopoly

Published: Sat 29 December 2018

There are three ways to play the Monopoly game. The bootstrap way, the well-off way and the real way.

The bootstrap way starts by giving each player $50. All the money needed for the game mainly comes from the $200 salaries players draw after each round. The game progresses slowly. Quite often, The players might see a golden opportunity but don't have the capital to pursue. Luck played a significant role but everyone is more or less the same. Stakes are low so mistakes aren't lethal. This is a game of perseverence, best played with a strong sense of humor when bad luck strikes.

The well-off way begins with a grand total of $2000 or even $5000 inherited for each player. When capital isn't the constraint. The game moves ahead incredibly fast. Houses and hotels come up like mushrooms. Hundreds, if not thousands, dollar changing hands each night in the hotels. Since the land disappears within the first a few rounds, the game quickly turns into a strategic play. Negotiation and probability thinking play far more significant role. The game feels more intense with lots of social actions.

The real way is the least fun. Every one gets a different amount based on a lottery. The initial luck determines how much money each player starts with. If you are lucky, you get $5000; if you are the least fortunate, you get $50. The bigger the differences are, the less fun the game is. In fact, the game sucks for everyone. Poor and rich. A bonus point is that you can design the initial allocation based on a country's real wealth distribution. For example, play the "New Zealand in 1978" will give you a totally different feeling compared to "China in 2018".

The bootstrap way is best suited to play with friends on a snow day with the beef stew in the slow cooker. The well-off way is more fun and exciting to play with high IQ PE and investment bankers. The real way? I never managed to see any group finish it.


Amazon's six-pager

Published: Fri 28 December 2018

Within Amazon, powerpoint presentations are never used in meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six-page narratives laying out their points in prose and "staff meetings at Amazon begin with 30 minutes of silent reading". This is so strange that I decided to find out more about it, with the end goal of seeing whether we should apply this practice in our business.

First, the benefits.

Benefit #1: Provide more context. The story-telling narrative helps to tie all the numbers and analysis into a coherent story, providing an opportunity to review the core data going into a decision and share the process that leads to the final decision.

Benefit #2: Accelerate knowledge sharing. A collection of these well-written documents enable everyone in the company to internalise a whole new space within 30 minutes of reading. Greatly optimising how quickly and how many different initiatives the team can work on in parallel.

Benefit #3: Encourage learning. The writings established the records for future clinical examination and instituionalised proprietary learning. When the final result is out, it'd be much easier to review and hopefully learn from it by comparing the written records to what actually happened.

Ok now the key pieces ...

Component #1: writing in narrative. Writing is more honest. It's harder to hide half-thought-out arguments in clear, concise and coherent writing. According to Bezos: "When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity." Andy Grove considered written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.”

As for the story-telling narrative, Bezos said : "We have so many metrics . . . and the thing I have noticed is that when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you’re measuring." He believes in telling a story vividly, rather than relying on data or graphics. (Have you read of his handstand story in his letter to shareholder?)

Component #2: six page limit. Precision counts. It requires a lot of work for the team to deeply understand their own space, gather the data, understand the operating tenets and be able to communicate all these clearly. The Amazon team member often rewrite the memo several times to make the writing "interesting and easy to read" before presenting to the senior team.

As for the data, the validation, the information that feeds into the narrative that doesn't carry the structure, they go into the appendixes for completeness and cross reference.

Component #3: silent reading session. This is the weirdest meeting I'd imagine. When asked "Why don't you read the memos in advance?" Bezos replied "Time doesn't come from nowhere. This way you know everyone has the time. The author gets the nice warm feeling of seeing their hard work being read."

Here is a recommendation on how to structure a six-pager. FWIW, it's a reasonable starting point that I'd try to base my 2019 annual plans on.

  1. In the past it was like this …
  2. Then something happened …
  3. So now we should do this …
  4. So the future might be like this …

Property investor vs. value investor

Published: Thu 27 December 2018

Property investor believes in the average numbers and she seeks above average opportunities. Value investor believes in 80/20 rule and she looks for outliers.

Property investor focuses on the middle part of the bell curve. Value investor spends her time at the tail end.

Property investor expects a moderate return on her investment. Value investor bets on 10x returns from her money.

Property investor is right most of the time. Value investor is wrong seven or eight times out of ten.

Property investor looks elsewhere for references to set her price. Value investor looks into spreadsheets for models and assumptions.

Property investor likes a good story. Value investor likes a good story too, but she loves a great financial model even better.

Property investor's main contribution is her capital. Value investor's contribution is her thoughts, perspectives and unique understanding of a demographic, a market or a technology. Capital is a ticket for her to get involved.

There are many more property investors than value investors. Like many things in life, there is no right or wrong to each approach. But as an early stage entreprenuer, it is critical that we develop the intellectual muscle to quickly figure out what makes the other person tick.


B2B CEOs vs. B2C CEOs

Published: Wed 26 December 2018

B2C and B2B are two different kinds of businesses and they call for very different CEOs.

CEOs all need to set the vision, build a team and raise the funding.

But there is something fundamentally different here.

The B2B CEOs sell. Many of them went up the ladder through the sales track. They are great salespeople and quite often they can be quite effective task managers that drives the sales pipelines. Think Salesforce. Or Linkedin. Both produced awful software products but no one can argue against their market share or valuations.

The B2C CEOs, however, are product designers by heart. They are very sensitive to the product and they are obsessed with getting the user experiences right. Quite often they have a background in engineering. Having worked with a couple over the years, I can testify that they are every bit awkward and introvert just like a typical engineer. Want some examples? Ev Williams (Twitter), Steve Chen (my boss, YouTube and Paypal) or Reed Hastings (Netflix, Pure software) are great examples here.

Of course, the best CEO excel in both. Like Steve Jobs.


I'm back

Published: Wed 26 December 2018

This Christmas, I set a goal of writing one blog post every day in 2019.

Why?

I want to use writing to improve learning. Running a business means that I always have something that's more "urgent" or "important". Learning has been pushed down the list under the "nice but can wait till later" category. I want to do better in 2019.

I also want to improve my communication skill. I've been mostly working solo in the last three years. Now that I've built a team around myself, communication becomes more important than getting things done by myself. I'm hoping to use writing to solidify my thinking as well as documenting the stories while they are still fresh and raw.

Lastly, I feel I do have something to share with the world. My story is hardly unique, but I hope that someone somewhere will find these posts helpful, encouraging, or even inspirational.

So here we go.

PS. On the tactical side, I just replaced the old Jekyll site with this Pelican installation.

Jekyll seems to be going strong with GitHub's support. I just couldn't make it work again. I was on Ruby 1.9 and now the latest is 2.5. Packages become obsolete. gem update broke.

Since I know Python better, it makes sense for me to migrate to a python based site generator and hopefully maintaining the site will be better in the long run.

I've also stripped the website to its bare bone. It's just a bunch of markdown files with a minimum css. Creating a new post is as simple as creating a new .md file and publishing it is make rsync_upload.


"But there is no baby in there."

Published: Sat 13 August 2016

The moment the ultrasound image showed up on the screen, both of us knew something was wrong.

We went into to meet our second baby for the first time but instead we saw a uterus full of grape-shaped, watery tumors.

Technically speaking, the pregnancy has gone wrong from the very beginning. Key DNA pieces were missing in the fertilised egg, which triggered a disease called molar pregnancy that grows fast. So quick that it’s considered a “pre-cancer condition” that needs to be taken care of immediately.

Thank the great public health system in New Zealand. Within 36 hours, the whole uterus was evacuated clean, and life went back to “normal” again.

It’s normal regarding the day-to-day operation. The outside. Deep inside, the long wait only just started.

In front of us, the best case scenario is that the hCG level keeps on dropping at a nice steady rate until it gets to a single digit, right from the peak value of 114,000, then we’ll wait another 6-12 months before we can try to have a baby again.

The worst case scenario is that there are 15-20% chance that Zephyr will need further chemotherapy and 2% chance for this disease to become a full-on Choriocarcinoma. Even here, we are still pretty luck because this type of cancer responds very well to chemotherapy. What it does mean though is the likelihood of having another baby will be low.

So, things have been pretty shitty for our little family in the last a few weeks. Whenever I found myself in this situation, I will try to see what life is trying to teach me. And here are three things I’ve found:

First, I feel incredibly lucky and profoundly grateful towards this country and the doctors, surgeons, nurses and midwives who have helped us. It took less than 48 hours from receiving the diagnosis result to a successful operation, and Zephyr discharged from the hospital. The whole process was swift, professional and even the brutal reality was delivered in the kindest way.

Second, I’ve never felt so connected with the people and the community around us. That big slab of ice in my heart was slowly melted away by the warm supports we received from our friends and the people around us. Everyone, we shared the news with would give us a big hug and told us their experiences. One of the ladies had eight miscarriages before she finally had two beautiful babies. The other had a baby that was almost full-term before the little heart stopped beating. These sad stories put our experience into perspective and pulled me out of those dark, sad and lonely places.

Last, the very possibility of having Mia as our only child helped to bring much-needed clarity to day-to-day activities. For example, we just had a few pretty decent falls of snow, and my usual intuition had been “meh, we’ll have another one soon so let me just focus on this feature now”. This time around, I didn’t even think about work before I spent most of Monday with Zephyr and Mia so we could have all the pristine snow to ourselves. I knew very well that there would never be another 2-year-old Mia happily playing snow with daddy. Next year, she will be 3.

To finish off here is a short quote from that captures what I wanted to say.

{% blockquote Joybell.C https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4114218 %} "Pain is a pesky part of being human, I've learned it feels like a stab wound to the heart, something I wish we could all do without, in our lives here. Pain is a sudden hurt that can't be escaped. But then I have also learned that because of pain, I can feel the beauty, tenderness, and freedom of healing. Pain feels like a fast stab wound to the heart. But then healing feels like the wind against your face when you are spreading your wings and flying through the air! We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces."


"My anti-dillusion framework"

Published: Fri 16 January 2015

The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.” - Voltaire

Here is a simple framework that I use to make sure I am not fooling myself. When I need to make a major decision, I ask myself three questions:

Hopefully, in the process of working through the above questions, the scores will gradually converge and the answer becomes clear. Like I said, this is pretty simple technique but it has served me well.


"Back for the long haul"

Published: Wed 14 January 2015

A lot have happened between my last post in Apr, 2014 and now. Our daughter Mia was born in May and I started to work on a new startup happymoose.nz from August. Bootstraping a new baby and a company at the same time haven't been too cruisy. (Although honestly I've taken a easier job because Zephyr has done a lot to shield me from the waking up three times during the night business. )

So I am back at blogging again. The main driver is that I realised quite often I failed to provide a succinct and quick answer to many questions. I almost always have too many things I want to say and didn't know where to start. I'm hoping that writing will give me more chances to practice.

Another reason is that since Mia was born, time starts to get blurred into a continuous stream of work, cooking, baby and slep. (not always in that nice sequential order though). I lost track of interesting or important things in life. I'd like to use writing as a way to help myself to savor what has happened on that date.

I'll try to write one post every day and I'll keep it raw and unpolished. The world won't grind to a halt if I make a mistake in grammar or spelling. If what I write interests you, great. If not, no drama because this time, I write for myself.


"Alan Kay's reading list, List vs Grid, Window into our health and Experience the data"

Published: Tue 15 April 2014

- links

Alan Kay's reading list. I decided to read every book on this list. I'm half way through Mindstorm now. Will publish a book review when I finished it.

List Beats Grid: Linear Feeds Perform Two to Three Times Better Than Grids

List view is better for phones and smaller tablets because good type design implies a single column to achieve adequate font size and line length. Designing a magazine or card based grid for larger tablets or desktop is a lot of extra work for platforms that are not as rapidly growing in market share. We wondered if these grid layouts yield enough marginal performance gain on larger screens to offset the cost of building and maintaining them.

A list layout for all screen sizes is beneficial for us due to the dramatic simplification of design and engineering problems associated with our layout engine and the tangential benefits extending from this simplification. A list view is easier to make responsive on all screen sizes and provides a coherent experience across web and native apps on all devices.

Eyes: The Windows to Your Health

A doctor can find warning signs of high blood pressure, diabetes, and a whole range of other systemic health issues, just by examining your eyes. Ophthalmologist Neal Adams explains why the eye's tissues and blood vessels make such a good barometer for wellness. Sure there will be a Google Glass app for this? (Via: @Mike_McQueen)

The depth of the problem: A good data visualization provides a chance for the reader to really experience the data.


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