I've been working on a spare-time art project in Processing. Originally inspired by my doodles in meetings, where I'd make textures out of connects arrows, I decided to render images this way. Initial gallery up here. Full-screen viewing recommended.

Today, after much hard work, Google finally launched its music store. My team does all the automated recommendations for this. Hope you like them, and if not, they'll be even better soon.

I've managed to make time to read a bit more fiction. I partially blame the iPad and its Kindle functionality. Some spoilers on older books follow.

"Consider Phlebas", Iain M. Banks. What a weird book. I finished and can't decide how much I liked it. Which I guess means it was OK? You starts off thinkng you're in for a grand epic space opera a la Vernor Vinge's "Fire Upon The Deep", but then midway through you realize it's more of a fun romp with the intergalactic war set as a background. Then it gets to the end, and you die, the girl dies, everybody dies, for no good reason. You are wondering if perhaps the whole book is a joke, or a meditation on the futility of war. You read the epilog, where it is revealed that any surviving characters have lost their zest for life and kill themselves or put themselves into cryosleep and wake up millions of years later and THEN kill themselves, that everyone who won a battle went on to lose a war, and you learn in passing that the protagonist's entire race goes extinct later in the conflict. I wish I knew what Banks was trying to do so I could understand whether he'd done it. Three stars, with a big standard deviation.

"Revelation Space", Alastair Reynolds. OK, sure, I enjoyed. Ancient galactic civilizations, threats to the existence of the human race, mysteries, bravado, etc. I'm not great at analyzing plots, but this one suffered from one flaw I know how to look for since my friend Laura tipped me off to it back when we both read "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." "OK, let's get this straight. We're the forces of evil. We are trying to kidnap Harry Potter. We've got a professor at Hogwarts who's on our side, and he can magic up any item such that when Harry Potter touches it, he'll teleport wherever we want. Now, what item should we magic? How about we magic up a pencil and then leave it on his desk? No, wait, I've got a better idea! We'll magic up the cup he'll find at the center of the maze when he WINS THE ENTIRE OLYMPICS." Ummmm... really? Really? Anyways, this book is the sci-fi equivalent, a ridiculously complicated plot to achieve a straightforward result. Still, I couldn't put it down, so three and a half stars.

"What Ho, Automaton", Chris Dolley. Short and sweet. It's steampunk Wodehouse. If you think you want to read that, you most certainly do. The narrator is pretty much a complete Rif character [the sort of character I nearly invariably play in role-playing or assassin games], going off on random tangents, holding on way too tight to his obviously ludicrous ideas. I could not stop laughing. FIve stars.

"Zoo City", Lauren Beukes. It's South African noir with animal familiars. It ended up feeling like maybe a little less than the sum of its parts, and the end was a little more violent than I care for, but solid. Three and half stars.

This was meant to be my Halloween costume, but I didn't get it together in time. The idea was inspired by Mexican Day of the Dead imagery, and also by Grim Fandango. I wore it to an early December cabaret party, and had a great time. Compared to my original conception, it had fewer, larger flowers, but I think it works well. Costume work by Jenn Martinez, makeup by Anna. I'll definitely be wearing this again, possibly with some modifications.

Dear JetBlue,

I am a moderately frequent flyer, taking 4-7 cross country trips a year plus an international trip or two. I frequently fly your airline. Yesterday I flew from San Francisco to Boston, by way of New York. It was a hard day. Some of the problems obviously had nothing to do with you. I do not blame you for the fog in Long Beach that delayed my plane arriving in San Francisco, which in turn delayed the departure. And I do not blame you that I (just) missed my JFK connection, requiring me to take a later flight. And I do not even blame you that the later JFK flight was also delayed, causing me to get home nearly 3 hours later on an already long day.

However, there are a number of things you could have done better. These are not the expensive things people would admittedly love, like bigger seat pitch, more direct flights on the schedule, and weather control satellites. These are instead fairly simple things that would cost you nearly nothing to implement, yet would have made my and many other people's experience much better.

The first point contains your electronic display of (expected) departure times. I believe that keeping this display somewhat more updated and more accurate would go a long way to making things better. Yesterday, I experienced two different delayed flights --- one in SF, and another at JFK. In both cases, the display was updated to reflect an initial delay, but this initial update was both substantially too optimistic and was left on the board even when it was obviously not true. You may not know for certain what time my flight is going to leave, but if it's 12:45 now and I'm still sitting at the gate and the plane I'm going to get on hasn't arrived yet, surely you can come up with a better guess than 12:15? Yes, it is frustrating when a predicted delay turns into even more delay, but you do not make the situation better by pretending it's not happening. Just update the board!

The second point contains knowledge of flight times by people working at the check-in counter. My original plan for yesterday was to catch an 11:00 a.m. flight out of SFO, "officially" arriving at JFK at 8:10, and then a 9:15 from JFK to Boston. My breakdown of this is that we're going to spend five hours in the air, twenty minutes on each end taxiing, and if all goes well we'll actually get to JFK around 7:40. At 12:45 and still sitting at the gate, I asked the gate worker whether there was any information about being able to make my connection. She said that I would definitely make it, that the flight was *still* going to land at 8:10 because "It's much shorter going west to east than east to west and they can make up time in the air." This is simply not plausible. If I am in SFO and my plane has not started boarding at 12:45, there is no chance I'm going to be deplaned and on the ground at JFK in four hours and twenty-five minutes unless they can swap in an experimental fighter jet. I fly ten times a year, and I know this! Why would a professional gate attendant not know this? It might have been possible at that point that I would still make my connection, but it was not possible that I was going to be at JFK at 8:10.

The third point contains inconsistent handling of delay-related information and connection information by the flight crew. The flight crew was certainly aware that there were many people on this flight attempting to make tight connections. I know this because at least one of the gate agents, who had been talking to us, was on the flight. People trying to make tight connections have a couple of special needs, beyond everyone's need to get where they're going as safely and quickly as possible. One is to have accurate information about when the flight is going to land. In this case, I feel that you failed. At about 8 pm EST, the pilot stated that we would be on the ground at 9 pm. As it turned out, we landed at 9:15 and it was nearly 9:30 by the time we got to the gate. The second and even more important thing is information about and help with connections. In this case, everyone connecting to Boston and Buffalo missed their connections. The appropriate thing to do would have been for a flight attendant to say "Passengers travelling to Boston and Buffalo, we're sorry but you've missed your connection. There is a later flight, and we are automatically rebooking you. When we arrive, please go to LOCATION to receive your new boarding pass. We apologize for this, but we didn't feel we could further inconvenience the passengers on your connecting flight by holding it." Instead, absolute silence from the flight attendants (and we can't get up to go ask them while taxiing, of course), while we sit there stewing, wondering what's going on. This is really not good enough!

I have an iPhone, so I attempted to use that while taxiing to check the status of my flight. The status was unavailable. All the other previous JFK to Boston flights were there, and mine was simply missing from the page. It might have been better if I'd had the flight number for the next flight handy, but your mobile website did not make my life easy, and as far as I can tell was actively broken, missing the most important piece of information. Please make a better mobile website.

When I arrived at the gate, I had to go to the information screens to figure out if my flight had left. Since it wasn't being shown on the screen at all, I figured it had. I couldn't immediately figure out where to go, but was eventually pointed to a "Just Ask" desk. This desk was staffed by a single woman who was in all honesty somewhat hostile. I think she knew she was in for a hard time and so immediately switched into "I'm trying to help you, I'm yelling at you to stop yelling at me" mode even though I wasn't yelling. In fairness, the woman right next to me who showed up a couple minutes later was yelling. Overall, I don't blame this woman, but there was a real problem here. You had enough information to know there were 20 people on that plane who had missed connections. Why did you not have some simple plan in place for dealing with us? What do you think people who have been flying delayed all day and are trying to get somewhere are going to do? People are going to get frustrated, and start panicking and getting angry. You can avoid this. I note in passing that I later walked down a different arm of the terminal and saw another JetBlue desk with three staffers sitting at it doing nothing, so it's not clear it's a total manpower problem. I have had this experience go much better on other airlines.

I think the central themes of these ideas are that people would rather hear the truth about delays, presented politely, then be told something that is obviously not true or that will clearly be revealed to be untrue in a short amount of time, and that we would like you to help us manage our connecting flights in a reasonable way.

I recognize that JetBlue is a relatively small airline. I recognize that I will sometimes have to take a connecting flight to get where I want, because you have fewer direct flights than the competition, and that weather will cause unavoidable delays. There's a lot I like about your airline, and I hope to keep flying with you. However, today's handling of the connection experience will make me strongly consider using a competing airline with direct service in preference to taking your connecting flight again. Your poor handling of the situation added substantial additional uncertainty and frustration to an already difficult experience.



ps. The Map channel. I love that you have a map channel. However, there is no good reason why your map channel should show 30+ seconds of ads for every 10 seconds of maps. Particularly given that you have only about six ads in rotation. I don't frequently see the map channel used, but to a small segment of your customers (at least me), it represents a major value add. I am a nervous flyer, and seeing where we are calms me down. However, seeing the same ads over and over again for most of the time I want to see the map is incredibly irritating. What other television station could survive if 3/4 of the content were ads? Do you really think I'm going to order a glass of wine because I've seen the 100th ad about your brand of Zinfandel? Do you really think I'm going to acquire a pet and use your jetpaws service, or that I had no other plausible to find out about it? To see this service done right, please take any Virgin America flight. They not only have a map with no ads, they let you control the scale. Please improve your map channel. I know not many passengers care about it, but those ads you're showing now can't be worth much.

2008 was on the whole a positive year for me, although perhaps not as positive as most.

Themes for 2008:

  • I'm not really a "software engineer." Software engineer is my current job title. I think Google is a great place to work, and I might make it as a software engineer at Google, but I'm much more of a mixed bag. In general, I'm happiest and most productive when I'm either working on a hard, chewy problem with some research-y aspects, or working at the strategic level, trying to figure out the right plan. When it comes time to grind out lots of fairly straightforward, bulletproof, heavily-tested code that implements the design, I'm not nearly as strong. I'm still pretty good, it's just out of my sweet spot. I wasn't sure about this before I came, and now that I've worked as a software engineer for 1 1/2 years, I have a lot more clarity on it.

  • Trying and failing is not bad. This is really huge for me. In some relatively trivial areas of my life, I have no trouble taking risks: I'll get a crazy haircut or a piercing without thinking too hard about it. But I think that a big problem with my career has been my unwillingness to take risks, to say "I'm going to spend 6 months to a year trying this, even though it really might not work." When I was in research, I tended to favor projects that were more analysis, or pointing out flaws in previous work, or very small incremental improvements using known tools. At Google, I've let myself fall into projects that I knew were doable, that were "just work" and didn't really excite me, because they were "safe." I dream big, and to achieve big I have to take more risks. Many of those risks will fail. That's OK.

  • Meditation and Buddhist ideas. I've spent a lot of time this year working with mindfulness, meditation, trying not to get too attached to my thoughts and emotions, learning not to get upset by the actions of others. I'll have a lot more to say about this in future posts, but I feel like this year has been the beginning of something important for me, a sort of recognizing of something I'd always known but never been aware of.

Things I have made progress on:

  • Being open and non-judgemental about people. If someone does something that hurts me, at work or personally, it is much better to pragmatically figure out how to improve the situation then to decide they are bad people who need to be punished. Getting angry or upset doesn't help anything.

  • Making new friends. I've been more open to meeting and spending time with new people this year, more willing to put myself out there. It hasn't always worked perfectly, I've been rejected some and hurt some, but on the whole I'm happy with what I've done and the choices I've made. I think that being honest and open, even though it makes me a little more vulnerable, is definitely the right stance.

  • Focussing. When I worked at Honda, there was noone else in the office most of the time, and I often slacked off. At Google, I am surrounded by smart friendly reasonably hard-working people, getting good stuff done. This has done wonders for me. For most of this year I worked on a project I didn't much care for, and while I can't say I enjoyed it, I can say I was able to work my way through it and I'm glad. Community works wonders.

Non-theme for 2008: Worrying about money. I feel pretty good about both how much money I have and my attitude towards it. This is a real improvement from some previous years.

Things I am most grateful for in 2008: My ridiculously awesome wife and best friend Anna, who continues to amaze me. My friends and family. Music, dancing, yoga, math, computer programming, good food and wine, dark chocolate. Oh, everything really.

Resolution for 2009: Spend more time playing music and deliberately practicing to improve. I have other goals, like spending more time dancing, losing weight, exercising, getting some good stuff done at work, making new friends and keeping the old, but if I do just OK on those and make much better music, I'll be more than satisfied.

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker on what's wrong with our school system, and how to fix it.

Gladwell starts by discussing college scouting, and how difficult it is to predict how well the top college quarterbacks will do in the NFL. For quarterbacks, the NFL game is qualitatively different from the college game: much faster, much more dynamic, much more athletic. The only way to tell for certain that they'll be great NFL quarterbacks is to see how they play in the NFL. Gladwell goes on to suggest that selecting teachers faces similar problems — that we cannot hope to predict in advance how good teachers are going to be. As a secondary example, he uses a financial advising firm, who interviewed 1,000 candidates, offered internships to 49, jobs to 23 of those, and expected roughly half of them to end up making it. In the case of the advising company, it took three to four years of sustained observation to find the actual performers.

Gladwell also makes some points about dynamic range in teaching. If a median teacher covers one year of material in one year (by definition, I suppose), there exist many bad teachers who cover only half a year of material and many good ones who cover a year and a half of material. Teacher effects are a very strong predictor: on average, moving from a 50th to 85th percentile quality teacher is about as good as cutting class size in half. According to one study, if we replaced the bottom 6-10 percent of teachers with median quality teachers, we could close the education gap we have with a bunch of other better performing countries.

Gladwell's suggestions are that we make it much easier to get into the teaching business, eliminating things like required masters degrees which are expensive and have little correlation with performance. He suggests eliminating easy and automatic tenure, rigorously evaluating performers, and paying good performers a lot more.

These suggestions are all fine as far as they go, but Gladwell kind of goes off the rails because he fails to understand some key differences between teaching, football and financial advising. Football has very strong zero-sum and winner-take-all properties: there are a a total of 267 victories each season to divide among 32 teams, and only one team can win the Superbowl. The difference between a world-best performer and an almost-but-not-quite-world-best performer is therefore enormous. It's critical to constantly evaluate whether your quarterback is the best possible rather than merely very very good — the merely very good ones are actually "failures." Financial advising isn't quite as zero-sum, but I posit that there are many more people who want to be financial advisers than there is a need for financial advisers.

Teaching, on the other hand, is a very different situation. Gladwell himself notes that merely replacing the worst teachers with median quality teachers would be an enormous win. And we don't need just a few good teachers, we need a giant mob of them.

I am a firm believer that in nearly all cases, practice and effort can improve skills. It's true for football, it's true for financial advising, and it's true for teaching. In the case of teaching, Gladwell makes a good argument that we have identified some of the skills involved: how good is the teacher at giving rapidly iterated useful feedback, how often is the teacher interacting with the group. Everyone who wants to get better at anything needs to practice and put in effort.

But Gladwell thinks we need to hire four teachers for everyone one we "end up" with, weeding them out and washing them out like financial advisers or football players. I disagree. We need more focus on the skills that make teachers successful, and more incentives for teachers to learn and practice those skills. But we're not trying to find the 30 best teachers, we're trying to teach a whole nation of kids. We're trying to create a situation where every teacher is as good as the 85th percentile teacher is today. Instead of taking a stance that teaching is something that only a chosen lucky few could ever do, let's assume that nearly all teachers can get better with appropriate practice, and that many of them can probably become good enough with the right incentives.

Analogy from my personal life: I am an amateur musician. If my goal is to become a professional classical concert pianist, the appropriate course of action (other than, at my age, seeking psychotherapy) is to spend every waking moment practicing. There is very limited demand for my skills, and I have to be not only very very good, but actually better than almost anyone else. On the other hand, if I want to become a very good piano player, it is sufficient to practice for a couple hours a day, especially if I practice in good ways. I think becoming a teacher is a lot more like becoming a good piano player than a professional concert pianist, and I think our policies should reflect this. So while I agree with Gladwell about relaxing masters degree requirements, rigorously evaluating performance, and increasing pay for performance, I don't think the analogies with quarterbacks or financial advising are very strong.

(Aside: I am no football expert, but Gladwell could check his facts better. One of the lynchpins of his football argument is that colleges generally run the shotgun spread and the NFL doesn't. However, Tuesday Morning Quarterback suggests otherwise.)

(Update: Anna says that attacking Malcolm Gladwell is kind of beating up a strawman.)


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