Evolution has a speed limit

From physorg, a statistical analysis of the velocity of evolution from the fossil record, looking for an upper limit:

Large evolutionary changes in body size take a very long time. A mouse-to-elephant size change would take at least 24 million generations based on the maximum speed of evolution in the fossil record, according to the work of Alistair Evans and co-authors. Becoming smaller can happen much faster than becoming bigger: the evolution of pygmy elephants took 10 times fewer generations than the equivalent sheep-to-elephant size change.

Now that computational cycles are becoming cheaper, some really interesting statistical analysis can be done in science to ask questions we never could before. Very cool.

Simon Phipps on Ebooks

If the e-book stores had framed their business as a super digital lending library (with prices to match) I might be an avid customer by now. Instead, by saying I am buying the book, and charging prices that are a delta on the cover price rather than a delta on the cost of a lending library, they draw my attention increasingly to all the things I can’t do – lend, share, resell, bequeath – and I usually order the paper version. Perhaps it’s time for some reframing? Maybe for app stores too?

Simon is in much the same mindset I am here, and it really makes me wonder how much money the publishers are leaving on the table because they don't understand that ebooks are to books as radio is to records, at least as implemented.

Time to make these things actually property, so I can lend, resell, and donate. Or change the pricing to rental pricing.

The Ugly Business of Books

There is a pretty interesting look at the CEO of Barnes & Noble this week in the NY Times. It shows how much of a David and Goliath fight B&N is in for, with 1% of the valuation of Amazon who they are trying to compete with.

I have very mixed feelings about Amazon, and continue to have mixed feelings about my kindle, and the closed nature of the device. But I'm becoming less and less a fan of the book publishers. They seem to just be missing the point that their old pricing model, and scarcity model, doesn't work any more.

Their insistence on pricing control dramatically makes me buy less ebooks. An unlendable ebook has an intrinsic value of $5 or less to me. They are priced typically at 3 times that, which has made me a frequent buyer of used hardcover from ... Amazon, where no one other than Amazon is making any money on it.

If ebooks came without DRM, so I was sure I'd still be able to reread it in 4 decades, or could lend my mom & dad the book once I was done with it, then the current $10 - $15 range would be something I'd be fine with. Though I expect I'd still purchase more dollars worth of books over all if they were priced closer to $5.

And then, there is the scarcity issue. Richard Wiseman, an established author, couldn't get his book Paranormality published by any of the american publishers because it says ghosts aren't real. American publishers are so focused on cranking out supernatural to their readers, that they block out anything that calls that into question. Failing to get an american traditional publisher, he self published on Amazon and Apple in ebook form.

All of which makes the book publishers look, feel, smell, a lot like other big media, and completely out of touch with what their paying audience is interested in.

Things we sometimes forget

Last night I was reading though the CiviCRM documentation, which is actually incredibly well written for tech docs. I came across the following, which stopped me in my tracks.

Data storage jurisdiction

As mentioned before, CiviCRM can be run from the server or from the cloud. When working with issues around human rights, or if an organisation is gathering sensitive information about a country's government or its officials, it is quite important to know where your data is stored. This is especially important when data is stored "in the cloud", when it's not obvious where the data is physically stored. Not getting into details, it might be good to have detailed information about where the servers are physically located, and which country's jurisdiction is used in case of governmental requests for information.

Other security concerns

It should be remembered that many successful attempts of unauthorised access don't have too much to do with IT systems security. It's often social engineering, physical access to server and client machines or using violence against people who have authorised access to data that are responsible for break-ins. Therefore, making sure that data is secure requires also extensive, on-going training of system users and making sure that they are familiar with all the necessary precautions.

Right. This software is getting used by organizations in countries where governments are actively trying to get this data to stomp out political unrest. While I'd still have to worry about security for my deployments, I don't have to worry about the worst of this. But for many people, in many parts of the world, this is a real and present danger.

That's important not to forget.

Google Maps snapshot in time

I was headed over to a friend's house the other night, so looking them up on google maps to make sure I knew the way. In the process I stumbled upon something that totally threw me.

This is a map of Poughkeepsie, NY, what I typically get when I bring up Google Maps.

Notice anything odd near the Golf Club? No? I didn't either, for years.

How about now? Kind of looks interesting huh?

Oh, look it's a plane in flight. Well isn't that the damnest thing. I even know that flight path, as it's the one where they turn over our neighborhood before heading in for a landing at Stewart air port. The flight is typically 4 in the afternoon IIRC.

This looks a lot like what you see with asteroids going through star fields because astro photographs are taken with a single CCD and color filters, which provide much better resolution per silicon chip.

There should be enough detail on that plane to tell the model. Any takers? I'd love to know the answer, just because.

If you have a website, read this book

If you have a website, or have any creative input into a website, this is a book that is a must read. When people come to your website, they are looking for something. And the number one lesson is don't make them think, make it obvious.

Through repeated examples, Krug will show you sites that look nice, but that completely confuse their users, and how he would correct them. You will immediately want to redo your site navigation after reading this. And you'll have a much cleaner overall look once you are done.

Buy this book, read it, and make your little corner of the inter webs a better place.

Everything is hand made

Update (3/22/2012): This American Life has pulled the episode because Mike Daisey's story contained a lot of fabrications. The facts of FoxConn weren't fabricated, but a lot of his personal stories and encounters were. Any statement that starts with "I have seen" is probably suspect and untrue. This original post is left below, because it was a point in time writing based on the impact the episode had on me.

How often do we wish more things were hand made. Oh we talk about that all the time, don't we. "I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch."

But that's not true. There are more hand made things now then there have ever been in the history of the world.

Everything is hand made. I know, I have been there, I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than a human hair, one after another, after another.

Everything is hand made.

This American Life has an incredible show this past week, an adaptation of Mike Daisey's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" for the radio. It's the story of his trip to Shenzhen, to find the origin of his iPhone.

The story is amazing. The story telling is amazing. And the questions it raises about what it means to be a part of the global economy, are interesting and thought provoking.

If you've ever owned anything that has "Made in China" stamped on it, you should listen to Mr Daisey and The Apple Factory.

Why I became a programmer

Yesterday was not a good day. The reasons (plural) aren't really important for the sake of this discussion. But at 7pm, with the day behind me, and an hour and a half before my wife   was scheduled to get home from yoga, I switched over to my emacs window, and started going after a problem I've been poking at for 2 weeks.

The problem, which had nothing to do with my day job, was how to seemlessly add some javascript to date forms in Drupal to make them more magically. The date forms in Drupal are honestly quite dumb. You get presented with From and To, Date and Time. They are initialized to "now". But they are 4 fields, unlinked by code. This was the easy way for the developer to write it, but absolutely frustrating for the user. Especially if you've used systems where the To dates move forward in time to match changes in the From dates. Set From to Jan 24th, and the To date shouldn't still be Jan 11th. Making it also move to Jan 24th might not always be right, but it's almost always more right than leaving it unchanged.

I had figured out how to do this with jquery, with these fields, and have a solution for one of my sites. But this is something that would make a great Drupal module. One that requires no configuration, and just makes your user's experience better. How to get there, required banging my head a lot on internals, reading a lot of code that I thought might be examples, and not getting anywhere. Last night, frustrated with things that weren't this problem, I went after it again, this time by brute force. After about 45 minutes of trial and error, I found a hook I could use to patch myself into the execution stream at the right point. Better yet, it seemed like this was probably the right way to do it, not some dodgey hack. By the time Susan got home, I had the shell of this module mostly working. Not releasable yet, but the minimum viable piece was now done, and the rest was about cleaning up for release.

I felt better.

There is a longer story here about how I entered College to be a PhD Physicist, and I exited to do web development for the Sydney Olympics. But the key take away was a realization, late in my Junior year, that when I wanted to relax, I went off and coded something. While I could never point to the day it started happening, I do vaguely remember realizing that my happy place, my retreat from the stress of the world, was deep inside an emacs session for hours at a time.

The fact that the thing that relaxes me, writing software, also happens to be a key piece of a quite profitable profession[1], made me a fortunate individual. Having gone to college and watched the modern internet emerge, which is an even longer story, made me doubly so.

The best piece of advice I ever got was from my friend and mentor, Eric, in college. "The key to happiness is to figure out what you'd do anyway; then find a way to get paid to do it." Even if this wasn't my job, I'd be writing software. It's what relaxes me.

What relaxes you? What would you do if money was no object? Why did you become whatever you call your profession? Drop a comment below, because I'm actually quite interested.

[1] Yes, I've been long enough in the Software Engineering space to know programming is a small part of it (especially at a large company), but it's still a very important part.