Thursday, November 21, 2013

Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

Udacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course | Fast Company:
"I'd aspired to give people a profound education--to teach them something substantial," Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. "But the data was at odds with this idea."
As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students--1.6 million to date--he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.
I am one of the 90% who signed up and did not make it to the finish line. I like the class. I just don't have did not dedicate enough time to it. Like many others who signed up, I have a degree, (a Ph.D.), so I don't need another PDF certificate to add to my credential. I have a full-time job, and a family to care, and ..., I forgot my next excuse, but I promise I have some more.

Did I learn something substantial? Yes, but I do not have the paper (or email) to prove it. I have signed up way more courses from Coursera. Some I finished with a certificate, most I just watched the video, or just downloaded the video. Did I learn more substantially from those courses that I finished with a certificate? Not necessarily. I did not finish, maybe I missed a quiz due to my personal schedule. I got some certificates, maybe because the online grading system is not too hard to game with. The point is that as a professional I don't need to prove anyone, the instructors included, that I have learned something substantial. I bet I am not alone.

So, the finish line may not be the right measure of whether someone learned something substantial. Also, when you have a free check-in. Many who signed up are not serious to begin with. ( I am one of those too.) I signed up some courses, without intention to finish. I watched one of many videos available, learned something interesting, and that is it. It is not much different than a TED talk sometimes. Did I learn enough in the subject area? No. Is it worthwhile? To me, yes.

The finish percentage is less important when the denominator is not a good measure of who actually start.

Another angle many already have covered is that the materials are available to anyone with internet access. That is huge already. When I was in college in China, my way of learning English is to turn on the short-wave radio searching BBC and VOA for anything they were talking about. As a student, I would have been thrilled if I can listen to a professor talking about a topic I was interested for 5 minutes. Today, whole course of almost everything at your fingertip! They love it, and they learn from it.

MOOC is changing and will change the picture of higher education, not the way Mr. Thrun had in mind originally though.

A Second Life for Old Permian Oil Field in Texas -

A Second Life for Old Permian Oil Field in Texas -

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Markdown or LaTeX? | Yihui Xie

Markdown or LaTeX? | Yihui Xie:
I definitely love Markdown and will avoid Latex unless someone put a gun on my head. And I love the quotes at the end.
Although all roads lead to Rome, some people die at the starting line instead of on the roads.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Seth's Blog: Belief is more powerful than proof

Seth's Blog: Belief is more powerful than proof:
 In fact, the only use of proof is to have a shot at creating belief.

It's not the only way, though, and it's not always the best one either.
I agree with Seth on this, but I don't think it is the right way. Critical thinking is key to knowledge, but not required for building up wealth, power and many other things. 

Train Your Brain to Focus - Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore - Harvard Business Review

Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (Calculate your “positivity ratio” at
3:1 makes intuitive sense, but mathematical model? Label me "unconvinced".
The second advice seems more practical:
Apply the brakes.Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task. Distractions are always lurking: wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds, or interruptions. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action, and even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and getting you off track.
What can you do? To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal. Become Aware of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then Choosethoughtfully: Stop? or Go?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Statistics is the least important part of data science

Statistics is the least important part of data science «Andrew Gelman 

Quote in full:
This came up already but I’m afraid the point got lost in the middle of our long discussion of Rachel and Cathy’s book. So I’ll say it again:
There’s so much that goes on with data that is about computing, not statistics. I do think it would be fair to consider statistics (which includes sampling, experimental design, and data collection as well as data analysis (which itself includes model building, visualization, and model checking as well as inference)) as a subset of data science. . . .
The tech industry has always had to deal with databases and coding; that stuff is a necessity. The statistical part of data science is more of an option.
To put it another way: you can do tech without statistics but you can’t do it without coding and databases.
This came up because I was at a meeting the other day (more comments on that in a later post) where people were discussing how statistics fits into data science. Statistics is important—don’t get me wrong—statistics helps us correct biases from nonrandom samples (and helps us reduce the bias at the sampling stage), statistics helps us estimate causal effects from observational data (and helps us collect data so that causal inference can be performed more directly), statistics helps us regularize so that we’re not overwhelmed by noise (that’s one of my favorite topics!), statistics helps us fit models, statistics helps us visualize data and models and patterns. Statistics can do all sorts of things. I love statistics! But it’s not the most important part of data science, or even close.

The Decline of Wikipedia: Even As More People Than Ever Rely on It, Fewer People Create It | MIT Technology Review

The Decline of Wikipedia: Even As More People Than Ever Rely on It, Fewer People Create It | MIT Technology Review:
Yet it may be unable to get much closer to its lofty goal of compiling all human knowledge. Wikipedia’s community built a system and resource unique in the history of civilization. It proved a worthy, perhaps fatal, match for conventional ways of building encyclopedias. But that community also constructed barriers that deter the newcomers needed to finish the job. Perhaps it was too much to expect that a crowd of Internet strangers would truly democratize knowledge. Today’s Wikipedia, even with its middling quality and poor representation of the world’s diversity, could be the best encyclopedia we will get.

Compiling ALL human knowledge probably has never being a realistic goal, and not sure it will stay the best encyclopedia for long. The writing quality is still not as good as many leading traditional ones. But as a gateway leading to deeper researcher it is adequate.

Arizona Imposes Net Metering Fee on Rooftop Solar - IEEE Spectrum

Net metering has been controversial among utilities across the United States and in countries like the UK as well, because of claims that if customers generating electricity at home are allowed to sell electricity back into the grid at the going spot price of electricity, then the added system costs of providing the needed infrastructure will be shifted to all the rest of the customers.
The state's utility regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission, concluded that concerns about the cost shift are real and imposed a fee of 70 cents per kilowatt of installed solar, which would equate to about $5 per month in a typical household. Though that is but a tenth of what the power industry had advocated, spending millions of dollars to lobby the Arizona regulators and influence public opinion, it may have some national impact.
It seems that millions dollars spent in lobbying is a much better investment than, say, R&D. Who needs innovation when legislation can be bought?

Canada’s Missing STEM Skills Shortage - IEEE Spectrum

Canada’s Missing STEM Skills Shortage - IEEE Spectrum
IEEE is out again, citing a recent research by Canadian bank. The author is happy to report that:
But the counter-claims didn't carry much weight until a few weeks ago. That’s when senior economists at TD Bank, the second-largest bank and financial services company in Canada, published an in-depth analysis (pdf) of the alleged wide-spread skills shortage in Canada and found the claims “exaggerated.”
One bank's claim of "exaggeration" does not make the "counter-claim" much heavier, but let's look at the research.
"We also put to the test some commonly-held perceptions surrounding jobs and skills more generally. There are few subjects that garner the same degree of attention as jobs, given their critical importance to an economy and households’ standard of living. At the same time, however, few areas tend to be such fertile ground for widespread perceptions to form, some of which are based on anecdote rather than hard data. In recent years, the notion of a severe and growing mismatch between the types of skills demanded by employers and those possessed by job seekers has topped the headlines. There are also widespread views that the Canadian job market has become increasingly polarized and that today’s youth will be a “lost generation.”
Our analysis of the available data reveals that while some of these perceptions are exaggerated, others appear to be closer to the mark. We debunk the notion that Canada is facing an imminent skills crisis or that the job market is headed for persistent economy-wide labour shortages over the long haul, as some have led us to believe. Canada’s labour market has demonstrated elements of “polarization” across skill and wage levels, but not to the same extent as in the United States. Meanwhile, our data test uncovers evidence of skills mismatch across certain occupations and provinces. Unfortunately, information gaps don’t allow us to ascertain to what extent, or if, the situation has worsened over the past decade. "
So, Canada is not "facing an imminent skills crisis or that the job market is headed for persistent economy-wide labour shortages over the long haul". That is equivalent to that there are enough STEM graduates in Canada!

Look deeper into the report, we can see why Canada has escaped "an imminent skill crisis."
Canada’s current immigration points system scores potential newcomers on their level of education. Not surprisingly, immigrant adults continue to be overrepresented among Canadian university degree holders. While immigrants make up roughly one-quarter of Canada’s adult population, they hold roughly one-third of all university degrees. The out-sized share of immigrants by occupation is most noticeable for STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – roughly 60% of all engineering degrees are held by immigrants.
Sixty percent! I doubt that is the prescriptions IEEE editors are looking for.

As I said in previous blogs, the job market is globalized, like it or not. The jobs can go out, and workers can come in. If one continues to be obsessed with the job security of American engineering jobs, they will be disappointed. Just look north.

Robert, read the report in full before you quote it next time!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Focusing too narrowly in college could backfire -

Focusing too narrowly in college could backfire -

The Danger of Specialization is real:
Yes, in some fields, like engineering, the only way in is with a specialized degree. Other things being equal, students with one of these degrees will have an easier time getting their first job in the field than students with liberal-arts degrees. After the first job, though, it is not clear how much advantage that practical degree has.
And also interesting to found out that Information Systems is among the majors with highest unemployment rate. 
 So, STEM shortage is a myth after all?

Something Very Big Is Coming: Our Most Important Technology Project Yet—Stephen Wolfram Blog

Something Very Big Is Coming: Our Most Important Technology Project Yet—Stephen Wolfram Blog:
In the Wolfram Language my concept from the very beginning has been to create a single tightly integrated system in which as much as possible is included right in the language itself.

And so in the Wolfram Language, built right into the language, are capabilities for laying out graphs or doing image processing or creating user interfaces or whatever. Inside there’s a giant web of algorithms—by far the largest ever assembled, and many invented by us. And there are then thousands of carefully designed functions set up to use these algorithms to perform operations as automatically as possible.
Won't hold my breath for it, but would like to see it. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Global Energy Report Tracks Path From Doom to Slightly Less Doom - IEEE Spectrum

Carbon dioxide emissions related specifically to energy (a sector that accounts for about two-thirds of all CO2 emitted) will rise by 20 percent by 2035. I'm pretty sure we were going for reductions, not increases. If this scenario comes true, we're locking ourselves in to at least 3.6°C of warming, far more than the 2°C most agree should be the limit in order to avoid the worst effects.
A lot of the continued use of fossil fuels is in the transport sector, and electricity generation is actually faring a little bit better. Renewable energy accounted for 20 percent of global electricity supplies in 2011, and that will rise to 31 percent in 2035 under that same main scenario. Fossil fuels, meanwhile, will drop from 68 percent in 2011 to 57 percent in 2035—still far too high to meet that 2°C goal.
Not a pleasant story to tell.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Nassim Nicholas Taleb again.
Opacity: 143 The error about the error (Fukushima, again)

An error rate can be measured. The measurement, in turn, will have an error rate. The measurement of the error rate will have an error rate. The measurement of the error rate will have an error rate. We can use the same argument by replacing "measurement" by "estimation" (say estimating the future value of an economic variable, the rainfall in Brazil, or the risk of a nuclear accident). What is called a regress argument by philosophers can be used to put some scrutiny on quantitative methods or risk and probability. The mere existence of such regress argument will lead to two different regimes, both leading to the necessity to raise the values of small probabilities, and one of them to the necessity to use power law distributions.

The Supreme Scientific Rigor of The Russian School of Probability

Reproduced in full from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's blog.
Opacity: 152 The Supreme Scientific Rigor of The Russian School of Probability

I would like to record here (so people get off my back) that I do not belong to the so-called "Austrian School" of economics, in spite of a few similar positions on bailouts and bottom-up systems. I believe in mathematical statements. But if I were to belong to a school of thought designated by a nationality, the {NATIONALITY} SCHOOL of {DISCIPLINE} it would be the Russian school of probability.

Members across three generations: P.L. Chebyshev, A.A. Markov, A.M. Lyapunov, S.N. Bernshtein (ie. Bernstein), E.E. Slutskii, N.V. Smirnov, L.N. Bol'shev, V.I. Romanovskii, A.N. Kolmogorov,Yu.V. Linnik, and the new generation: V Petrov, A.N. Nagaev, A. Shyrayev, etc.

They had something rather potent in the history of scientific thought: they thought in inequalities, not equalities (most famous: Markov, Chebyshev, Bernstein, Lyapunov). They used bounds, not estimates. Even their central limit was a matter of bounds. A world apart from the new generation of users who think in terms of precise probability. It accommodates skepticism, one-sided thinking: A is >x, A O(x) [Big-O: "of order" x], rather than A=x.

Working on integrating the rigor in risk bearing. We always know one-side, not the other.

Apple maps: how Google lost when everyone thought it had won | Technology |

Apple maps: how Google lost when everyone thought it had won | Technology |

Apple's maps have turned out to be a hit with iPhone and iPad users in the US - despite the roasting that they were given when they first appeared in September 2012.

But Google - which was kicked off the iPhone after it refused to give Apple access to its voice-driven turn-by-turn map navigation - has lost nearly 23m mobile users in the US as a result.
The Guardian puts "Default behaviour" as the explanation. We need a behavioral economist in Google.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Generating Geothermal Power from Carbon Dioxide | MIT Technology Review

Generating Geothermal Power from Carbon Dioxide | MIT Technology Review:
In conventional geothermal plants, water and steam heated by hot rocks deep underground drive turbines in a power plant. The water is then pumped back underground to be heated up again.
The new technology would use carbon dioxide instead of water. This approach has several potential advantages. By eliminating the need for water, it increases the prospects for geothermal projects in dry areas. And computer simulations show that CO2 could produce twice the electricity from a given area that water produces, says Martin Saar, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Minnesota. Saar is cofounder of Heat Mining, a company that plans to test this technology in a small power plant that it will build next year.

Interesting idea. Not sure it is going work, but similar technologies are emerging. One of them will work. :)

First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity - IEEE Spectrum

First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity - IEEE Spectrum:
The world's first 3-D–printed metal gun aims to prove a point about the reliability of 3-D printing technology. But its makers don't plan on revolutionizing the manufacture of firearms by making the process available in every household.
No plan to make the process available in household. No plan to stop it either, I guess.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Corporate Recruiters Insist There Really Is a STEM Worker Shortage - IEEE Spectrum

Corporate Recruiters Insist There Really Is a STEM Worker Shortage - IEEE Spectrum:
Or I would change the title to editors at IEEE Spectrum insist that STEM worker shortage is a myth.

It is supply and demand. At the equilibrium price, supply equals demand, thus no shortage. The problem is that, employers would always prefer a lower price than whatever they are paying, so there is always a shortage of workers willing to work at lower wage. At the same time,  the workers want higher salary, there is always no shortage of workers, but shortage of satisfactory jobs.

Perceptions! IEEE editors are right in saying that shortage is a perception of the employers, and they want more STEM workers to achieve lower wages. That is statement is always true.

Public policy should be based more on facts than perceptions of either employers or workers alone.

The author asks: "how much the recruiters were willing to offer in terms of salaries and benefits to those oh-so-hard-to-find STEM workers." His suggestion seems to be pushing the price higher, you get higher supply of STEM workers. But he seems to forget the simple econ101, high price also lead to lower "shortage" in another way, at the price of fewer jobs employers want to fill.

For editors at IEEE who likes higher wage and "job security", creating a real shortage of STME workers is the sure way to achieve it. Is that good public policy?

In the time of globalization, the editors at IEEE still define the job market as American job market. Hiring "foreign" workers when there are Americans unemployed is almost a crime. The truth is the job/labor market for high skill workers is easily portable. You can move the jobs to oversea, or take the workers to America. If the company does not do it, some smart employees would outsource his own job to overseas and pocket the difference.

Sorry, IEEE, foreign high skill workers are taking American jobs away. No going back. More accurately, there is no more American high skill job market any more. There is only one high skill job market. Google and Microsoft have research centers in China and India to attract the best and brightest. Infosys and others set up sweatshops for lower "high"-skill workers to take some traditional white-collar jobs.

Less supply of American STEM students won't give the benefit IEEE editors want. India and China alone can simply flood the market, which they are doing. More importantly, when there is no enough talent pool in America, it may push the price higher in short-term, but the R&D infrastructure will further move outside, which lower the opening in America even further, and there goes the competitive edge of America as a nation.

Business Plans and Other Works of Fiction - Scott Anthony - Harvard Business Review

Business Plans and Other Works of Fiction - Scott Anthony - Harvard Business Review:
I like the Microsoft Fiction:
And then they used Microsoft’s most popular products to produce what they thought was a business plan. But it actually was a kind of fiction built in three chapters: an Excel spreadsheet with sophisticated analyses showing breathtaking financial potential, a PowerPoint document blending facts and figures with compelling videos and pictures, and a Word document summarizing all of it in prose so lucid Malcolm Gladwell would shed a tear.
But why Mr. Gladwell?

Key question to ask:
“Who is your first customer?”
I would combine this with Steve Blank' "get out the building". Spending too much time with the imaginary customers is, a work of fiction.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Nietzsche – The Lonely One | Harper's Magazine

Nietzsche – The Lonely One | Harper's Magazine:
I detest following, but also leading.
To obey? Never! And just as bad – to govern!
He who wishes not to be terrified, will summon no terror for others:
Yet only he who peddles fear can lead others.
I even detest having to lead myself!
Like the creatures of the forest and the sea, I love
To lose myself for a while
In meek error thoughtfully to cower
Drawn home at length by distant things
Being enticed by myself to my Self.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Einsame (ca. 1882) in Gedichte und Sprüche p. 75 (1908)(S.H. transl.)

New BlackBerry boss John Chen out to prove skeptics wrong | Reuters

New BlackBerry boss John Chen out to prove skeptics wrong | Reuters:
John Chen, the man charged with breathing life into struggling BlackBerry Ltd, says he has no intention of killing the money-losing BlackBerry handset as he looks to turn around the smartphone maker.

When Being Alone Turns Into Loneliness, There Are Ways to Fight Back -

When Being Alone Turns Into Loneliness, There Are Ways to Fight Back -
Loneliness is as strong a predictor of early death as alcoholism and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it turns out you don't actually have to be alone to feel lonely. 

Loneliness can lead to many bad things, read this early and unpublished Nietzsche text:

"No one talks to me other than myself, and my voice comes to me as the voice of a dying man. With you, beloved voice, with you, the last vaporous remembrance of all human happiness, let me tarry an hour longer. With your help I shall deceive myself about my loneliness; I shall lie my way back into society and love. For my heart refuses to believe that love is dead, cannot bear the terror of the loneliest loneliness. It compels me to talk as though I were two."
Back to the WSJ
Evolutionary psychologists say the lonely feeling developed to alert humans—social animals who rely on each other to survive—that they were too close to the perimeter of the group and at risk of becoming prey.
Spending time alone is more fun when it is by choice. When it is the result of loss, separation or isolation, people are likely to experience it as loneliness. Homesickness, bullying, empty-nesting, bereavement and unrequited love are all variations on the theme. Loneliness isn't depression, which is a lasting feeling of deep sadness and hopelessness and should be treated by a professional.

Monday, November 4, 2013

BlackBerry Abandons Sale Process -

BlackBerry Abandons Sale Process -
The buyout offer did not work out, as many suspected
After a monthslong sale process failed to secure a solid bidder by Monday's deadline, BlackBerry Ltd. BB.T -12.73% announced a $1 billion investment from a group led by its major shareholder and the ouster of its chief executive.
The new interim CEO may be the next Steve Jobs?
In a brief interview, Mr. Chen said he would need "a little bit of time" to consider next steps for the company, but that he sees BlackBerry becoming the leader in business-focused services. "Obviously there are a lot of assets there," Mr. Chen said.

"One of the things that was hurting this company is that there was a for-sale sign up," Mr. Watsa said. "The for-sale sign is taken down. We have financing in place for the long term."

Konterra Solar - Business Insider

Konterra Solar - Business Insider
Now, the headquarters of Konterra, previously best known as the Laurel, Md.-based property developer serving the DC metro area, is home to one of the first renewable energy storage systems in the U.S. capable of not only storing generation when the sun's not shining, but also delivering power to the local electric grid.

The parts to focus on are the inverter, the batteries, and the transformer.

The inverter is used to convert the electricity generated by Konterra's new rooftop solar panels, which come with the system, into a usable current to power either the building or the local grid.

The battery, which is actually just an off-the-shelf lithium ion package, can be tapped by the local grid to temporarily charge or discharge excess power in the surrounding area.

Finally, the transformer can remove the Konterra building from the grid in case of a regional power outage, providing up to four hours-worth of backup supply. “When you can really squeeze value out of [solar and storage], it will revolutionize not just solar, but the way the grid operates,” the head of Standard Solar, which developed the whole project, told LaMonica. “You’ll see lots of distributed generation and microgrids, and the grid will be more of a backup.”
Distributed Power!