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Pocket Queue 49

  • Chinatown’s Kitchen Network
    I though this was an interesting article about how the various Chinese restaurants in SmallTownUSA get cooks (because owners don’t want to slave in a kitchen forever). I don’t think a similar thing happens in Toronto, although I can’t really tell because I never see the cooks. However, the wait staff at a couple of Chinese restaurants that I frequent are consistent.

    Rain lives with five co-workers in a red brick town house that his boss owns, part of a woodsy development near the restaurant. The house is tidy; there are three floors covered with white carpeting, and each worker has been supplied with an identical cot, a desk, a chair, and a lamp. “Some bosses don’t take care of the houses,” Rain said. “If they’re renting the house, especially, they don’t care. The rooms will actually smell.” Every restaurant worker has a story of sleeping in a dank basement or being packed in a room with five other people. Many complain of living in a house that has no washing machine, and being forced to spend their day off scrubbing their grease-spattered T-shirts in a sink.

    Rain’s boss, in contrast, is fastidious. The house has a granite-countered kitchen, but he forbids the employees living there to use it; instead, a hot plate and a card table have been set up in the garage. Outside, the building is indistinguishable from the other town houses, aside from a tin can full of cigarette butts on the doorstep. The shades are kept drawn.

  • Why do people earn what they earn?
    A look at a couple of professions/industries and trends as to why some people in one job earn more than another.

    But the server-as-secret-weapon tells only part of the story. After sifting through lots of academic papers and speaking to economists, I came to think of the depressed pay for cooks relative to waiters as a sort of “dream penalty” at play.

    Spend a day asking middle schoolers what they want to be when they grow up and I guarantee you’ll never hear “waiter,” “actuary,” or “portfolio manager.” Instead, their dream jobs tend to reflect activities they participate in: the performing arts, writing, teaching, cooking, and sports. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that there are so many underpaid actors, reporters, teachers, cooks, and minor league baseball players out there.

  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming
    A discussion about whether (or more correctly, how soon) we will see humans who have IQs of 1000! No discussion about how they will fit into society though, which I think is another problem.

    Each genetic variant slightly increases or decreases cognitive ability. Because it is determined by many small additive effects, cognitive ability is normally distributed, following the familiar bell-shaped curve, with more people in the middle than in the tails. A person with more than the average number of positive (IQ-increasing) variants will be above average in ability. The number of positive alleles above the population average required to raise the trait value by a standard deviation—that is, 15 points—is proportional to the square root of the number of variants, or about 100. In a nutshell, 100 or so additional positive variants could raise IQ by 15 points.

    Given that there are many thousands of potential positive variants, the implication is clear: If a human being could be engineered to have the positive version of each causal variant, they might exhibit cognitive ability which is roughly 100 standard deviations above average.

  • Detroit State of Mind
    What is it actually like to buy one of those really cheap houses in Detroit and work it back into a liveable state.

    Then we found the tall, red brick home standing just off a grand, tree-lined avenue, a house with (53!) new windows, a newish roof, and all the inner workings spared by the roving bands of scrappers that plague the city. We jumped. It had been on the market for a year and a half at $22,000. We got it for $17,000—three flats’ worth clocking in at some 4,000 square feet, with two fireplaces and a garage to boot. The bar and jukebox and pool table in the basement hinted at a past as a speakeasy, and the icebox delivery door in the back landing charmed me, as did the original built-in cabinets. Hardwood floors waited under the carpet, and a park grill set in concrete in the back yard under a pine tree promised cook-outs under the stars. Updating the plumbing and electric would just take a couple weeks, the contractor said.

  • What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?
    One idea in the scientific community is that you age because you think & believe you are old. There have been some experiments done, but is it true or not?

    She recruited a number of healthy test subjects and gave them the mission to make themselves unwell. The subjects watched videos of people coughing and sneezing. There were tissues around and those in the experimental group were encouraged to act as if they had a cold. No deception was involved: The subjects weren’t misled, for example, into thinking they were being put into a germ chamber or anything like that. This was explicitly a test to see if they could voluntarily change their immune systems in measurable ways.

    In the study, which is ongoing, 40 percent of the experimental group reported cold symptoms following the experiment, while 10 percent of those in control group did. Buoyed, Langer ordered further analysis, looking for more concrete proof that they actually caught colds by testing their saliva for the IgA antibody, a sign of elevated immune-system response. In February, the results came in. All of the experimental subjects who had reported cold symptoms showed high levels of the IgA antibody.

Pocket Queue 48

  • How to Get Into an Ivy League College—Guaranteed
    I have no problems with the business model that this guy uses, although I agree it’s an arms race. I think most people get caught up on the fact that it’s “guaranteed”. It’s not really guaranteed. The agreement is that if it doesn’t happen, you’ll get (some or all) of your money back.

    Ma says his biggest loss over the years was a $250,000 refund he sent back to the parents in China of a kid rejected by seven Ivies in 2011. “I way overshot,” he says. (Still, that girl ended up attending Cornell, which wasn’t among the eight colleges the family agreed to guarantee. “The mother wasn’t happy with Cornell, can you believe it?” Ma says.)

  • Escape from Microsoft Word
    Some funny examples of why Microsoft Word is difficult to understand (if you ever had to use it for long documents, you might agree)

    A friend at Microsoft, speaking not for attribution, solved the mystery. Word, it seems, obeys the following rule: when a “style” is applied to text that is more than 50 percent “direct-formatted” (like the italics I applied to the magazine titles), then the “style” removes the direct formatting. So The New York Review of Books (with the three-letter month May) lost its italics. When less than 50 percent of the text is “direct-formatted,” as in the example with The New Yorker (with the nine-letter month September), the direct-formatting is retained.

  • How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today
    The largest effect of the bullet train seems to be that it made most of Japan one giant metropolis with the name of Tokyo.

    In the early 1990s, a new Shinkansen was built to connect Tokyo to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The train ran along a similar route as the Shinetsu Honsen, one of the most romanticised railroads in Japan, beloved of train buffs the world over for its amazing scenery – but also considered redundant by operators JR East because, as with almost all rural train lines in Japan, it lost money. There were only two profitable stations on the line – Nagano and the resort community of Karuizawa – and both would be served by the new Shinkansen. A large portion of the Shinetsu Honsen closed down; local residents who relied on it had to use cars or buses.

  • Why We Keep Playing the Lottery
    Some ideas as to why people keep playing the lottery even though it’s almost impossible to win

    Selling the lottery dream is possible because, paradoxically, the probabilities of winning are so infinitesimal they become irrelevant. Our brains didn’t evolve to calculate complex odds. In our evolutionary past, the ability to distinguish between a region with a 1 percent or 10 percent chance of being attacked by a predator wouldn’t have offered much of an advantage. An intuitive and coarse method of categorization, such as “doesn’t happen,” “happen sometimes,” “happens most of time,” “always happens,” would have sufficed, explains Jane L. Risen, an associate professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, who studies decision-making. Despite our advances in reason and mathematics, she says, we still often rely on crude calculations to make decisions, especially quick decisions like buying a lottery ticket.

  • Rental America: Why the poor pay $4,150 for a $1,500 sofa
    Similar to how the lottery preys on poor people; new business models are springing up to keep poor people in debt

    By the next day, the Abbotts had a remade living room, two companion pieces, both of the same blended material, 17 percent leather. The love seat and sofa retailed, together, for about $1,500. Abbott would pay for hers over two years, though she still had paying the option to pay monthly or weekly. The total price if paid weekly: $4,158.

Cool things in the Valley

While I like complaining, the valley isn’t all bad. Here are some interesting things I found on this trip:

  • The car rental facility in SFO is absolutely huge. I guess they get a ton of business from people arriving and driving into the valley
  • There’s an interesting lunch service they have at work where you can order your lunch from a variety of local places and the service will pick them up and deliver in time for lunch. Since I’m only here for a couple of days, it’s pretty interesting but I’m guessing it will get repetitive after awhile.
  • Wi-fi at SFO is free and very fast. Much better than what I’m used to in the Porter lounges in Toronto/EWR

Hmm I thought it would have been a longer list, but I guess I didn’t do too much on this short trip.

First Impressions of “working” in the Valley

I went down to Silicon Valley for a couple of days this week for work. This is my first time here actually (I went down to SF for a couple of days in July 2005 but didn’t spend time in the valley) so it’s been a learning experience.

What I learned is that it is basically like Seattle (but with better weather). Most of the areas that I’ve been driving around are filled with one-storey industrial buildings that house famous tech companies. There are a lot of streets, a lot of traffic lights, and a lot of cars. We drove from Sunnyvale to Mountain View for dinner the first night and it was more of the same. After dinner (at 8pm) it was back to the hotel which was a long term stay place that was reminiscent of my Archstone residences in Redmond.

Since I am still on EDT schedule (so 4 hours ahead), I’ve been waking up early. That’s unfortunate because there’s nowhere to go! There’s no where to walk and even though I have a car, there’s no where that I would want to drive too!

I can see why people would want to live in San Francisco and suffer the commute to the Valley.

Solforge

While I’m still invested into Hearthstone, I don’t play it very much. I can chalk that up to a couple of reasons:

  1. The polish/animations make the UI too slow
  2. Playing online against real people is too slow
  3. The limit of 9 decks prevent me from having fun building decks (need to keep working decks around)
  4. The reward system is too slow

The last point is kind of interesting. There are daily quests (up to 3) which give you in-game currency, and this is supposed to keep you playing. If you complete all of them, you’ll probably have enough gold to get a new pack of cards. However it’s a lot of work to finish the quests (you have to play 5-10 games, possibly with characters you don’t really enjoy) so realistically I take a couple of days to finish them if I play actively. So I don’t get a lot of new packs (and when I do, I mostly get duplicates now). Because there is infrequent reward, I don’t feel like playing very much.

But I like the idea of card games, so I tried a new one called Solforge which is by the makers of Ascension. I sometimes enjoy playing Ascension so gave this one a try as it is available for Android and desktop. The reward system is better. You get a reward for logging in each day, your first win each day (irrespective of offline or online), and your third win. So you’re guaranteed some tangible reward (i.e., new cards) every day. As a beginner, that’s really great.

The game itself is OK – I’m still learning the intricacies and can’t beat the hard computer regularly (it also matters what cards you own). The UI sucks, and there’s a lot of reading involved (to learn the cards). I suppose that will get better over time (but the impact of the rewards will also decline as my collection gets larger). I initially tried it on Android, but the UI is even worse than it is on desktop! It’s in beta, so hopefully it will get better (Ascension’s UI is not that bad)

October 2014

We didn’t get Fall this year as we basically jumped from Summer to Winter in October. Days are in the 10°C range and there was frost on some nights. The heat had to come on so there was no time to open the windows. We want to some farms for some fall activities and some of the farms lost their PYO crops due to the frost!

There was a bunch of interesting news this month. The municipal election concluded this month and Toronto has a new mayor in John Tory, who beat out Doug Ford (who had to step in to replace incumbent Rob Ford after he had to pull out due to cancer treatment). It sounds like city politics will be a lot more boring in the next 4 years. The CBC sacked Jian Ghomeshi who fired back with a lawsuit, which resulted in a number of women raising abuse complaints against him. It sounds like he was prepared for this though as his lawyers and PR firm were right on it (although he was later dropped). The SF Giants won the World Series for the 3rd time in 5 years, but I think the larger story was the wildcard run of the Kansas City Royals. Unfortunately, they were not able to win it all.

Apollo grew a bit too much in the last year so some of the costumes we tried on last year that were “too big” didn’t fit him this year. Instead, we had to go buy a couple of new costumes for his Hallowe’en engagements. We also had to buy a couple for Jovian since he’s too small to fit in Apollo’s costumes from last year.

It was also Apollo’s birthday this month and he enjoyed eating cake unlike his first year’s birthday.

23andMe

I have been anticipating the release of the 23andMe service in Canada for awhile now. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a personal genome test service which takes some of your saliva and analyzes your DNA. I was interested in submitting my DNA for testing by for a long time it was a US-only service (possibly some ways to get around that). Then the FDA cracked down on the service so you could not get the full suite of their health analysis.

The rumors was that 23andMe would launch in Canada and the service here would not be limited by the FDA decision. Finally in October, they launched and I paid the $200 to do a test. 23andMe offers 2 basic services: 1) Genetic tests to see your risk factors for certain diseases (big ones are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and 2) Ancestry analysis. It turns out that they still don’t do as many genetic tests as they did prior to the FDA crackdown, and the set they do now (aside from the Big 2) are not that well known. I didn’t have a strong personal interest in the genetic tests, and had more interest in the ancestry analysis. But my main attraction in trying the service was curiosity in seeing what my DNA can reveal.

After purchase, the kit to collect my saliva came pretty fast (ordered on Friday, arrived on Monday). After spending 5 minutes spitting, I sent it off the next day. My saliva got sent to a location in Canada where it looked like it was bundled with some other kits and sent to their processing facility in the US. That took about a week (it seems like it had to go through custom clearance due to biological material?). Then another week for them to do the analysis. All told, it took about 2.5 weeks to get my results.

The results were a bit underwhelming. The don’t test as many things as I thought they would in terms of genetic characteristics (i.e., whether you are lactose tolerant or not) and the number of genetic risk factors is also small. There’s always promise that they will add more risk factors and your DNA analysis will automatically be applied to those. The ancestry result was also not too interesting, although that might be because the result lined up with what I thought my genetics would be. There’s a feature to find DNA relatives, and 23andMe found a couple – but they were all beyond 3rd cousins so we are not really related (of course this feature depends on the number of people using 23andMe).

For the price, I don’t think you get sufficient value out of it (especially if there are no surprises). However, I am interested in progressing the field and my understanding of my DNA so the $200 to become a member of this service is my investment in that.

Asimov on Creativity

Here’s a short essay by Issac Asimov on creativity. I like a couple of ideas

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

Also

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Which is one way to explain why large businesses find it difficult to be “innovative” irrespective of whether they say they are.

Always Taeyeon User Growth

One of the goals I set for myself for my Always Taeyeon app is to try and grow it better than A Healthier Commute. I already had a head start because the topic had more fans and audience, but I wanted the app to be “successful”. Of course, I set the normal hobby rules for the app (e.g., not paying for any promotion).

It’s been almost 2 months since I released and I’m pretty happy with the results so far. I’m at about 1300 downloads and a 4.4 star rating with 59 reviews. Obviously I want the download count to be higher, but I think I’m doing pretty well given that the only “promotion” I’ve done is post about it on a couple of Google+ and Facebook groups.

The statistics I’m most keen about now though is Daily Active Users. My app is high quality in the sense that the photos are high quality, but also in the sense that it is maintained well. So there are frequent (photo) updates. In fact, if there are new photos I try to engage with the user every day via a status bar notification. You can’t turn those notifications off – if you want them off, then you don’t care about the photos anyways so just uninstall the app. I’m not convinced that that is affecting my uninstall rate though as my install rate is a decent 42% (~570 current installs).

But does it have an affect on my DAU? I think it does. Here is a graph over time.

It is a nice trend as it is going up and to the right. I think my DAU is pretty impressive though as it is about 71% of my current installs! It’s so good that I’m kind of skeptical that the current install number is incorrect – although I haven’t released the app on other stores, maybe users are just passing around the APK.

New Fitbit….Flex?

Ever since I returned my Fitbit Force, I kind of missed having it. Sure it enabled me to wear a watch again, but I never really did. So I’ve been thinking about getting another fitness tracker for awhile.

I ended up buying a new Fitbit Flex, which is the old model prior to the Force. I debated awhile, because I was also very keen on getting the Xiaomi fitness band that was announced in August. It retails (in China) for only $13 – shipped to Canada would cost about $30 total, which is still less than a third of the cost of a Flex.

In the end, I decided on the Fitbit. 2 reasons:

  1. I was able to buy it on double sale. From a regular price of $99, there was a 25% F&F sale at SportChek, and then another 10% newsletter signup coupon. It ended up costing $67 instead of $100.
  2. Since I already had a Force, I already had data in the FitBit system and getting another FitBit device would contribute to that (instead of starting over)

One thing that weighed on my mind though, was that FitBit had already announced that they would replace the Force with something better! Should I wait for that? I decided no, and I think I did the right thing. Now, the rumors are that FitBit will release the Charge and Charge HR. I’m kind of interested in having a heart rate monitor in my fitness band, but certainly not at a cost of $220!