Thursday, July 12, 2012

Best for the company

A while ago I heard of someone saying something to the effect of this,
I don't believe that the decision to do X would benefit anyone, but it's the best for the company.
No matter what Romney says, corporations are not people. Corporations do not have values or desires the same way people do. When we say "Y is the best decision for the company", it is ambiguous whether we mean Y is the best thing for its employees, its customers, its investors, or its other stakeholders.

Maybe this ambiguity is intentional. Maybe we ourselves are confused. Or maybe we are too afraid to acknowledge who we're really trying to benefit at everyone else’s expense.

End of Entry

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why women may be thought of as bad programmers

I got my first tech-related internship back in the summer of 2009. The position was a very competitive one with a company in the heart of San Francisco. While I was ecstatic, I was also confused.

I hadn’t done very well on the interview. I screwed up the first question about dropping two eggs from a 100-story building (couldn’t get away from thinking binary search), and messed up a different question about the number of bits required to store some large number (mixed up “bits” and “bytes” and tried to calculated log_2 in my head, only to get it wrong).

Nor did I have much experience. I had barely heard of a version control system, had never really gotten accustomed to the command prompt, and hadn’t even written a single line of production code (well... beyond my silly tournament signup page, which refused to let you sign up if you had an underscore in your email).

Needless to say I probably left very bad first impressions on my coworkers. I was the silly little girl asking questions like, “What was that command you use to get into that other machine?”

So, here’s the hypothesis: companies want to hire more female programmers, either because they are constantly accused of being sexist or because they actually value having a gender-balanced team. So they lower the hiring bar for women, and end up letting in people who may not be as experienced. The rest of the team only sees that a woman was hired and she has very little experience as a programmer, and concludes that women are bad programmers.

End of Entry

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Value of Re-Posts

Prior to 2009 all of the posts here were written for my own pleasure. I didn't consider writing for a wider audience to be worthwhile, because there were already a surplus of mediocre bloggers and z-list blogs. If there was something I could think of to say, it was probably already said in much more eloquent words by a more accomplished person. Would I be adding any value by just saying the same things in different words?

Then in late 2010, there was a discussion about a biologist who published a paper in 1994 reinventing the trapezoid rule in calculus. While it points to a serious flaw in the peer-review system, John D. Cook had this to say,
The paper reinventing the trapezoid rule has been cited 75 times. It must have filled a need. Yes, the author was ignorant of basic calculus. But apparently a lot of other doctors are just as ignorant of calculus. The author did the medical profession a service by pointing out a simple way to estimate the area under a glucose-response curve. The technique was not original, and should not have been published as original research, but it was valuable.
The message contained in a blog post is not the only factor that determines its worth. What matters more is how much the message is spread and how it affects its readers. This is true for other communication mediums. The endless retweets, reposts, etc. does serve the value of making an idea reach more people.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Startups vs passion

One thing I dislike about the startup world is that we sometimes take the word "startup" to be synonymous with doing what one loves and pursuing one's passion. Founders talk about how their love and passion are the reasons why they started a startup, and the rest of the world concludes that anyone who is not doing a startup is not doing what they love.

It is true that a lot of love and passion needs to be poured into a startup. As Steve Jobs puts it, "because [doing a startup] is so hard, that if you don't [have the passion], any rational person will give up."

What's not true is that startups are the one and only way to pursue one's passion. By definition a startup's purpose is to find a repeatable and scalable business model. If you don't want to find a repeatable and scalable business model, you don't want to do a startup.

Instead, your passion may involve a business model that is not scalable or not repeatable. It might not be a business at all. Perhaps your passion can be better packaged as one of the following:

  • open source project
  • consulting firm
  • blog
  • lifestyle business
  • non-profit
  • vacation
  • academia
  • etc...

The nice thing about startups is that there are fair amounts of resources and support systems around building them. How do you know if a startup is right for you? Instead of saying "I want to do a startup in X", say "I want to find a repeatable and scalable business model in X", and see if it makes you wince.

End of Entry

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ikea shopping and λ-calculus

Yesterday I was at Ikea with a friend of mine (whose startup, Flockwire, has desks right beside mine), picking furniture for my first ever unfurnished apartment.

I was spending way too much time trying to pick the right shower curtain, when two thoughts simultaneously crossed my mind.

The first was a recent story I heard about why Alonzo Church picked the greek letter λ for his calculus. It is from Dana Scott's talk in the Turing Award webcast,
...but many years later I asked John Addison, Church's son-in-law if he would ask Church where the lambda came from. So he wrote him a post card [...] "Dear Prof Church, Russell had the iota operator, Hilbert had the epsilon operator, why in the world did you choose lambda for your operator?" So Church didn't write a letter, he just annotated the post card and sent it back, and he put in the margins, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe."
The second was the following clip from Fight Club,

On one hand, a shower curtain is a shower curtain. There is really no difference between two shower curtains of a similar quality, just as the letter λ is no better or worse than any other greek letter. On the other hand, whichever shower curtain I pick will be sharing my bathroom for at least a year, so as silly as it sounds, I did want to choose one that "defined me as a person".

It's funny to imagine Church asking the question, "which greek letter best defines me as a person?" The letter Church chose is now attached to his name -- not for one year, not for two years, but indefinitely.

I ended up choosing the curtain by bringing two to checkout, and making the final decision under time pressure. It was much easier that way.

(It feels so strange, even blasphemous, comparing λ-calculus to my shower curtain.)

End of Entry