Sunday, October 12, 2008

Peer School


  • Further the general education of each member via peer developed content that emphasizes the presentation of material from members as much as it depends on the feedback and attention of the members.
  • Include people from multiple backgrounds and disciplines.
  • Encourage presentation from multiple forms and diverse backgrounds.
  • Encourage the broadening of the entire group by approaching material outside of the expertise of all members.
  • To improve all members communication skills, especially oral and written.
  • To help professionals discover new ways of looking at their fields by presenting their knowledge to an interested group of non-experts.

Models of Success:
  • Modern Marvels – Those guys can make anything interesting. Who knew that Saws and glue could keep me watching for an hour a piece?
  • Socrates – The school of Socrates, where the emphasis was on communication, discussion, and the art of asking good questions. They had a deliberate disassociation from testing and measurement of achievement.

Keys for success:
  • An active community of participants of which at least half of the people consistently present.
  • Food & drinks.
  • An openness and desire for members to be interested in learning.
    • Its one thing to be interested theoretically, it is another to be so interested in the face of one’s other obligations in life. The more rewarding the experience is from the outset, and the more value people feel they are getting, the better the long term prospects are.
  • A distraction free place for meeting.
    • Whether this is some member’s house, or a common community room, it must be devoid of outside interferences that might suck away the attention span of the members.
    • It may help to use varying and non-obvious meeting places to keep things interesting. Such as people's homes, coffee shops, park pavilions,
  • A set of organization on discussions.
    • Some people are naturally more aggressive than others in group conversations, and without some sort of organization on discussion, the more passive members may soon become disinterested entirely.
  • Minimize the amount of work for non-presenters.
    • Solutions to this problem might be to break apart a concept into a series of lectures of growing complexity on a given subject.
  • Emphasize a balance on deep and broad explorations of a subject.
    • If the material is too broad – then people may feel like the material is lacking in quality or substance.
    • If the material is too deep – people may feel like the material doesn’t relate to them enough to be meaningful and they may not be prepared to absorb and collaborate or contribute.
  • Balance safe subjects known to be interesting to the group, and subjects that may push the boundaries of people’s general areas.
  • Meetings should always be recorded with audio for later review. Video is also highly encouraged
    • Watching your own presentations is one of the best ways to improve weak points in your presentation skills.
  • Collaborative Presentations are legitimate.
    • If a group wants to work on a short film, or cover a topic in tandem, that’s perfectly reasonable.

Example Agenda:

  • Start of meeting with an organizer making a few opening remarks. The point here is to mark a definite start of the meeting to encourage some organization.
  • Open the floor to any willing presenters.
    • Valid topics could include:
      • A ‘day in the life of’ on your field of expertise.
        • Make sure to cover as concrete examples as possible, and to try to distill what you normally do into the parts of which might be of most value to someone outside of your field, or which might offer the best insights into what it is that you do, and why.
      • An in-depth covering of a topic that may be of common, but shallow depth of understanding for others.
        • Try to give meaningful depth, and help others by including explicit ways in which the depth of the information ties into their lives in a way that the new knowledge has a good chance at being gainful.

Embodied Energy

Thermostats in our homes measure air temperature, and so we generally think of the temperature of the house in terms of its air temperature. But there’s more to it than that. We rarely think of the temperature of all the other stuff in your house. It makes a bigger difference than most people give it credit for.

Ever notice that when it’s been cold outside for a few days, and suddenly it warms up to what you’d consider a really hot day? But you don’t really need your air conditioner?

I still need to crunch the numbers a bit – but over the summer I noticed that the factors I thought would be important for predicting how hot my house would get or how much electricity I’d need to cool my house.

I was using these factors:
Outdoor High Temperature
Outdoor Low Temperature
Indoor Morning Temperature
Amount of Cloud Cover

What I found was that there was an additional factor – the average temperature my house had been for the past few days.

It takes a few days for all the materials of my house to settle on a temperature. The air temperature, in contrast, can fluctuate within hours.

So I got to thinking why that might be.

I’ll give two scenarios here:

1) Your house’s air temp has been 65 degrees all afternoon. In the evening you turn on the heater and your air temp goes up to 70 after an hour.

2) Your house’s air temp has been 70 degrees all day, with the heat on the whole time.

Do you think that if you lay down in bed – will you be cooler, warmer or equally temperate in the 2nd example? I’d guess you’d be warmer in the second example. After all, the bed itself is 5 degrees warmer to start with in the 2nd example. The bed doesn’t warm up right away when you turn the heat on – because the thermostat turns off the heater as soon as the air gets to 70 degrees.

Another thing to consider is radiation heat. If the ceiling of your house is 85 degrees (which can happen in many houses on a sunny day), then the energy of the ceiling’s radiation will warm you up more so than if it had been cloudy, and the ceiling was 77 degrees, even if the air temperature was 77 in both cases.

So, two houses at the same temperature reading may not feel the same, depending on the embodied heat of all the stuff in the house.

Like anything – embodied energy can help and hurt you. It’ll probably help you if you’re aware of how to take advantage of it. If you ignore it, it’ll work against you.

One design where embodied heat helps you is with a Tromble Wall , which is essentially a material with a lot of mass that is placed in the sun’s rays. In cool weather will absorb lots of heat during the day and radiate that into the structure it’s attached to during the night.

The Spanish have used this concept widely in their architecture. Big thick walls lined with white material act as a temperature moderator. In the hot daytime, they gradually absorb energy, at night when it gets cooler, they give off most of that energy. The next morning, they’re cool again, and get warmed up by the sun. This lets you have a comfortable temperature all day inside because the thick walls are always the temperature that you want them to be, as opposed to the air temperature outside, which is the opposite of the ideal temp.

It works best in an area with wider temperature swings. In the Southern US, where summer temperatures are high day and night – different solutions may be more applicable – but the concept of embodied energy is still worth having in the back of your mind the next time you go over to the thermostat to change the setting.

Creating Change

In order to make any real changes in the world you’ve got to get a lot of people involved. Most of us won’t play critical roles in the changes that society faces in our lifetimes, and most of the changes will seem to happen without our involvement at all. But that’s okay because not everyone needs to be a die hard for progress to be made.

Sometimes though, a problem comes along that is big enough or that we believe in enough that we feel the need to do something about it. We might not know what the solution is or we might feel like solving the problem is overwhelming. This is a common reaction that all people can feel when confronted with a problem whose solution seems external to them.

Some people will choose to make small changes in their lives. Maybe they change the products they buy, the things they teach their children. Maybe they give a little bit of money to someone working for their cause, or maybe they change the way they vote. Maybe they simply try to change the way that they treat people.

Some people will make bigger changes. They might volunteer for the cause. They may change jobs or move to a new place. They might go back to school or spend time trying to convince others to believe in the cause as well. They might organize a local group to start a discussion about the cause.

Some people will be in a better position to generate change than others. People who are in positions of power may not be aware of all the problems facing the world. They may feel just as powerless to make a change if they feel as though there is no support or calling for such a change. They may not know enough about the problem to know what solutions are best to pursue. Even with all of those obstacles - they might be receptive to working for change if that change is something they believe in.

For the vast majority of us who are not in a great position to create change, we can support those can. We can do this in many different forms. We can help to convince others to also support those in power. We can directly offer our support to those people. Or we can lead by example by following our beliefs in the sincere hope that others will follow suit. We can help to convince others who are not convinced yet. If the facts are on your side, you can always eventually win through honesty, integrity and humility.

The point is that we each have some way to help create the world we envision. Just because our professions may seem tangential or our ability to contribute may seem small – each person can genuinely help.

If you feel like progress is happening too slowly, but are unwilling or unable to increase how much of your life you are giving towards a cause – instead of losing hope, concentrate on supporting others higher than you or on building the number of people on your side. Any genuine legitimate action is superior to inaction. When everybody participates - things really do change.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Saving Money On Electricity

Sometimes we don’t think about actions we take in a way that puts into perspective their consequences.

Today I want to talk about how this affects our electricity usage.

Different perspectives:

1 watt running all year costs $1.

1 watt running all year from Coal sources emits ~20 lbs of CO2.

1 watt running all year from Coal sources emits ~.068 mg of mercury.

One watt isn’t too bad, but one watt is about enough power to keep a high-efficiency LED night light running.

The average home in the US uses about 5,000 kW hrs of energy from electricity a year. That’s equivalent to running 570 watts of power all year.

5,000 kW Hrs a year costs $600.
It emits 4.75 tons of CO2 / yr, and emits 38 mg of mercury.

What I find interesting is that for every watt of average electricity usage you stop using, you’ll save a dollar every year.

If you replace an old refrigerator or old air conditioner, this could quickly turn into hundreds of dollars.

A new air filter might cost fifty dollars, in one year the savings in electricity would pay back for itself compared to the old filter, if the average power use dropped 50 watts. After the first year, I’ll be saving $50 bucks every year after that compared to maintaining the status quo.

How much potential savings is there out there for the average person to tap into?

It depends on what kinds of things you have running in your house. There are plenty of good sources on how to make your house more efficient.

Just remember that 1 watt of average usage equals 1 dollar, and you will be more aware of the consequences of the amount of electricity you use.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Light bulbs III

A while back I wrote about compact fluorescents and how great they are and all that.

I figured a 2 year follow-up was in order.

So far, I've replaced 1 bulb that burned out, and I had one break when I moved.

Every other bulb that I bought two years ago is still shining as bright as they day I bought it.

My electricity bills dived noticeably (about 20%) after I switched. I've never had a pre-CFL electricity be higher than a post-electricity bill on a month-by-month basis. The biggest savings are in the winter which is nice here in the northeast, where heating costs are pretty expensive compared to my electrical bills - which are very cheap compared to my peers since I choose to forgo air conditioning.

What has been harder though, is to get my parents to convert to compact fluorescents. Lots of people their age say the same thing - "I don't like the light it throws".

I'm wondering what the deal is with that. The light doesn't bother anybody my age that I've talked to. At all. Sure, I can tell that there is a difference. But I'm not able to say one is superior to the other.

Is it that the older generation is more used to having bulbs that look the same way they always have?

I don't think that's entirely it. My parents switched from "soft white" to the bluer hued light bulbs a few years ago. so its hard to say that they're entrenched in one particular style of lights.

Maybe they just psychologically think that blue is superior?

Maybe CFLs have a stigma because they were poorly implemented a couple
decades ago with inferior technology.

Maybe their eyes are different? Can we figure that out? we know that the actual areas of the light spectrum that incandescent give off is different than a CFL. Does the human eye get used to certain frequencies of light and prefer them? Does the eye lose sensitivity to certain frequencies as people age?

My mom says the light is ugly. If I had to see it through her eyes, would I agree? (As in, if I could somehow take a picture through a filter that exactly matched her retina, would I be forced to agree that - yes - when seen through her eyes it is ugly.) This would be as opposed to saying, our eyes physically see the light the same way - but our brains interpret it differently.

I don't know which it is.

If its the eyes themselves - then maybe when I'm older I'll have CFL light too.

If it is psychology, then the light would probably just take some getting used to.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Signal -> Noise in Group Settings

This is a little exploration into something I was thinking about today.

My hypothesis is this:

Over time, the influenial members of a group will become dominant, such that the overall characteristics of the group will take on the properties of the influencers.

A little Mathematical Example To Set It Up:

If you graph a set of random data points it looks like a bumpy random graph.

If you have a bunch of random sets, and sum up the values at each point, you don’t get a random graph anymore. You get a uniform graph.

It’s like “White Noise”. You have a thousand signals all mashing up against each other - and the total sum of all the signals is a uniformly bland mildly randomly fluctuating signal we call white noise.

Now - let’s say you took the same system but introduced signal interference.

Let’s say some signals were “influencers” and others were “influenceable”. The influencers change nearby signals to be more like themselves. They don’t change themselves. The influenceable are dynamic, strongly picking up the properties of their neighbor signals, and weakly changing nearby signals to be more like themselves.

Now, in this system, initially, you’ll get a uniform signal, as you did before.

Again, my hypothesis is this:

Over time, the influencers will become dominant, such that the overall signal will take on the properties of the sum of the influencers.

What are the implications?

If there are lots of random influencers, you’ll get a uniform signal like before.

But if the number of influencers is small, or if the influencers tend to all have similar characteristics, you’ll get a signal that is driven by the influencers.

The original problem I wanted to solve was this:

Can I build a simulation to figure out how much of an impact an influential member of a group had compared to those who prefer to follow?

So I’m going to build something like this:

Take a 100x100 table of data, with each row being a “member” and each column being “some thing that they believe in to a certain extent”. The value of a particular node (x,y) tells us that x person feels F(x,y) about issue y.

Then I’ll put in a correlation of influence. Some people will be big influencers, others will tend to gravitate towards the ideas of others.

Each person x will have a list of “neighbors” that they directly affect. So, an influencer with a lot of neighbors should theoretically cause their values to become much more prominent in the overall system.

The question I want to find out is – how much of the overall signal over time is driven by the top X% of influencers? None? Lots?

How about if influencers operate in a heirarchy? Where some influencers influence other influencers.

Another question: How far away from the original signal can you get simply by selectively crafting the influencers? What if influencers can change the number of others that they influence over time?


One more: How simple of a system can you have before the effect is obvious?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Why Projects Always Take Longer Than You Think

When it comes to estimating tasks as a software engineer, most people usually estimate the time it will take for a series of tasks, total them up, and that’s about how long it will take. Some methods are most sophisticated than others, using average case and safe estimate cases, and totaling those up - but fundamentally, everyone is still working with averages.

The problem that most people run into is that they’re trying to intuitively fit a normal distribution on the length of a task, and pick the average time.

That’s all well and good. If you’re more or less right with your estimations of the average time, your total time will be accurate, right?

Well, maybe not.

The reason is that tasks don’t follow a true normal distribution.

But why?

In a true normal curve, you have a continuous number of possibilities for every option. But with real-world estimation, no task can take less than zero time. So, the probability distribution of a task is bounded by zero. The percentage of tasks that take zero time is zero, and grows from there. However, there is no upper bound on how long a task will take. The percentage of tasks that take infinite time drops to an infinitesimal amount over.

So, when you pick the average, you’re saying, half the time it’ll take longer, and half the time it’ll take less time, overall it’ll even out. But it won’t. The tasks that run short are bounded by 0, whereas the tasks that run long have no bound. Because of this the area of the curve before the 50/50 mark is less than the area after the curve.

You don’t want your average to be the 50/50 mark of when the task will be finished. You want your mark to be the 50/50 of the area, which takes into account the bounding problem.

This number will always be higher than the original.

Which is why you’re always late with your projects.

Or you’re just a slacker.