Thursday, October 28, 2010

Zombie Infection

I've been getting harassed a lot this week for talking about zombies. I don't know why I'm getting harassed, I've been talking about zombies for roughly the past year. I surmise that it is because people are getting overwhelmed with zombie stuff at the moment, which is entirely understandable.

Now, even though I talk about zombies a fair amount I don't really consider myself a zombie person (a person who is fanatical about zombies, not one of the actual undead). The reason that I say this is because I'm not really into zombie movies which is where zombies have there true origin.

I first became interested in zombies when I stumbled upon this podcast series in iTunesU, then there was an article in TIME, and then I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (honestly I don't think I could read the original, it must be amazingly boring without the undead). Since then odds and ends have just been popping up in my RSS feeds.

Some of the interesting stuff that has come out recently are:

Zombies in Retail

Zombies in Politics

Zombies in Academics

Zombies in Games

Zombies in Comics

Zombies in infographics

Zombies in an epic battle with unicorns (there is only one word for this...Awesome)

This is fun stuff, and just by looking over some of these links you can get a fairly good lay of zombieism, and with a little BS you can claim to be an expert.

However, as I said before I don't consider myself a zombie person, no my motivation for discussing zombies is part of an experiment (only possibly evil). I want to see if by bringing up something totally random (zombies) can I get other people to start bringing it up in other random circumstances? So far I think that it is working.

One one of my work projects I bring up zombies every week at our meeting. The people at that meeting now send me zombie links they find, and while on a plane my project manager had a zombie discussion with the guy sitting next to him on the plane.

My thought is that often we don't see, talk, think about things until there is a stimulus - a reason that brings the thought to the forefront of our mind. Once it is at the forefront we will start to see the thing in question all over the place.

So really I'm doing everyone a favor in opening their eyes, with the infection of zombies on the brain.

And now you're infected too,

You're Welcome.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Planning for School

I start school on Monday. Now the program I have applied for expects me to take five years to complete my PhD. Personally I think that is ridiculous, I think I can do it in three to three and a half.

Anyway in an effort to get the most efficient schedule possible I did the rational thing, I made a spreadsheet.

Now I need to take four classes and three are required so I needed to pick one more class.

I generated a multi-tab spreadsheet, one tab for each elective class. I then filled out the spreadsheet with how much sleep, class time, etc would fit into the day.

Then I wrote some little aggregation code so I could see how the different classes compared to each other. For some reason my wife thought that this was the geekiest thing that I have ever done, and has been laughing at me for months.

You would think that going to get a PhD or two would have clued her in a while ago that I am a geek.

(Sad side note, to one up my own geekiness I just spent an hour playing with a visualization api to turn that data into a treemap and accidentally clicked on a link and lost all of my work. Sorry for the lack of pretty pictures to display my data.)

Monday, March 29, 2010


I get to start a PhD program in sociology this fall.
My son gets to start kindergarten this fall.

Father-son bonding is imminent.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What is a good response to failure? More failure!!

I've been reading a lot lately about policy failure. The main thrust of the book is that most policies are amazingly inefficient generating more costs then benefits. Some of the policy failures discussed are the drug review process, various EPA mandates, financial regulations, and highway funding.

I have a few issues with the analysis, the largest of which is that I don't know that all the costs and benefits have been appropriately looked at. This is an issue I have with classical economics in general, they only look at things that can be monetized and modeled leaving out a number of important considerations.

But the real thing that I wanted to talk about was that this article reinforced an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. Performance based policy and vertical goal integration. While that may sound like two idea they are tightly merged in my head.

Performance based policy is the idea that any policy, government or private, should have a specific goal, a concept of how it is to be achieved, what the effects will be on other systems, a standard against which progress can be measured, and a review process to see how you are doing.

Doesn't this sound obvious and rational? Why do something if you don't have a goal, and a way to figure out if your getting there. Without measures and reviews you could waste time, money and energy on something that is totally fruitless.

I think this is especially important when it comes to public policy. I would think that if a politician could say "We were here and now, thanks to your taxes, we are here. And that means we are this much better off" then that person would do quite well in the next election. I suppose they kind of do this already with their earmarks, "Yes I brought $5 million dollars into my district for something completely useless!!"

That brings me to my next point, vertical goal integration. This is the idea that everyone is working towards the same goal at different levels, and knows what role they play. In a company the goal at the top level may be to make the shiniest widgets. The middle management would then have a goal to keep the factory floor clean to make sure no dust made the widgets less shiny. Does this make sense? Goals that work together based on the responsibilities of the person, or group in question.

I heard of one company where this was practiced so well that the janitor knew the company goals, region goals, local factory goals, department goals, and individual goals. He knew exactly where he stood, and how he helped the overall mission of the company. What a great thing not only for efficiency, but for morale as well.

Of course the above story works so well not only because they had goals, but also a way to measure them. If at any level there was consistent problems actions would be taken. Actions may include firing a person, maybe a policy change, or the introduction of new technology. It doesn't really matter what the change is, the point is a feedback loop was created so everyone could see where they were, where they were going, and how they were getting there.

It seems that there is a lack of this understanding all over the place. Almost every company I have worked for has had a hard time with this concept; a failure to recognize these concepts is endemic in government.

With ideas like this that seem so simple and intuitive to me I wonder why they are not practiced, is it because they are not obvious and simple, are other people just stupid, have other people just not been exposed to the idea, or are people threatened by these ideas and actively fight them off?

One thing a can predict, regardless of why these concepts aren't used, until someone starts making and keeping goals there will always be plenty of failure for everyone.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Don't Lynch Me, I do Roads

I just read a great article (here) about how urban planners are the true evil cause of the global recession.

In brief the author states that urban growth boundaries, an invention of urban planners, artificially restrict the supply of new housing causing a boom/bust economic cycle. This combined with new securitized mortgages brought down the the whole system.

Urban growth boundaries really do limit the supply of houses. They pretty much say that no one can build anything outside of a circle that a planner draws on a map. The primary reason that planners do this is to increase density, preserve open space, preserve agricultural land, and to limit commute times.

Now all of these reasons seem like good things right? Well, maybe not density. That is usually sacred to urban planners however because density to them also means that transit systems will work, more diversity, and more lively and walkable area; in short that they did something good.

So my question is which is more important, avoiding economic collapse, or getting all of these other good things. Actually the question is: do growth management policies provide the things promised? I don't know, but I read another interesting thing (here) about how cities that generate a sense of community have better economies then other cities. Then I read this article talking about where most young people want to live. The interesting part is that it list a number of cities that have urban growth boundaries.

I admit that the best research is done in the first article, but it was also written by the Cato Institute which is a very openly libertarian think tank. If it had said anything good about government it never would have been published. I don't know the biases of the other articles, and they are not as rigorous.

Really it all comes down to who you trust to give you the right information. That is why people love Glenn Beck, NPR, Billy Graham, or Billy Idol. There is no way to know everything so if we find someone we can mostly agree with we keep listening. This is why it is important every once in a while to question the assumptions underlying what we hear. If we don't we just become that jerk it spouts off about something they obviously don't know anything about, and I am sure we have all seen that guy at least once in our lives.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Determining Values

I keep wondering, hoping really that stock fall a lot more.
That sounds like a horrible thing I'm sure, but my reason isn't just to watch other people needlessly suffer; no I have much grander, nobler dreams for mankind, like actual change.

The reason that I want the stocks to drop is because I don't think that many people will change their behavior over this, so far, fairly short recession. And I think that America would probably come out of this stronger and faster if we truly rushed to the bottom and then started climbing back out of this financial pit of despair.

It seems to me that people are still not letting stocks drop to a real value. Instead people continue trading, buying and selling with the hope that the recession will soon end and they will make money.

I think, however that by not letting the stocks fall people are prolonging the recession, lengthening out the inevitable decline. If everyone would sell off ,and not continue to falsely inflate values, we could get to the bottom of the recession and get back onto a path of growth. Sustainable growth.

My fear is that we may be entering an era akin to Japan's lost decade. A time of little to no economic growth.

Then again, maybe everything is fine, or will be soon like a number of experts are saying.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Post Conflict Reconstruction

I just listened to a great talk given at the Technology, Education, Design (TED) conference; here is the link.

The talk is about what works and what doesn't when it comes to rebuilding countries torn by violence. The primary reason that I like it is because it makes a lot of sense, and because he says some things that I have been thinking about for years (being validated by smart people is good for my overfed ego).

My idea for reconstruction is to focus on the economy. The rational being that if people have the opportunity to work (be busy) and be able to buy stuff, the are more likely to work then join insurgency groups. That is about as far as I got with my own thoughts. People like stuff, and they don't usually like doing nothing for an extended period of time.

The primary reason that populations switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture was so they could have stuff. Prior to agriculture people lived longer more healthy lives do to a diversified diet, and small living groups. There were times when there wasn't much to each but it was cyclical and expected. Once farming started dietary options were limited, most food was high in sugar so there were more cavities, drought or flood destroyed all hope of food for most of the year, and higher density provided a nice home for endemic disease. The point is that life got kind of crappy, but for people it was worth it because you could have stuff and status.

Those primary desires haven't changed in millennia and using them as primary motivators to get a country back on tract I believe will be much more effective then focusing on strong arming a political puppet into a newly democratized political system.

I mean really when it come to work for a month to get a new plasma TV, or training for a suicide bombing mission the plasma looks more appealing, but there has to be a sense of hope and opportunity for the plasma or bombing is the only real option.

Anyway the talk is great and more thought out then my little rant so check it out.

Also if anyone knows of a job where someone with a masters in urban planning can get involved in international development and reconstruction let me know; that is really what I would like to do for a career. Thanks