08 August 2013

Watch Me Do Something Impossible In Three Totally Easy Steps

by ROBERT KRULWICH, on NPR, August 08, 2013 7:54 AM

Here's what the Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvard did. In 1934, he got himself a pen and paper and drew four cubes, like this.

Then he drew some more, like this.
And, then — and this is where he got mischievous — he drew one more set, like this.
He called this final version "Impossible Triangle of Opus 1 No. 293aa." I don't know what the "293aa" is about, but he was right about "impossible." An arrangement like this cannot take place in the physical universe as we know it.

You follow the bottom row along with your eyes, then add another row, but when the third row pops in, where are you?

Nowhere you have ever been before. At some step in the process you've been tricked, but it's very, very hard to say where the trick is, because what's happening is your brain wants to see all these boxes as units of a single triangle and while the parts simply won't gel, your brain insists on seeing them as a whole. It's YOU whose playing the trick, and you can't un-be you. So you are your own prisoner.

At first, this feels like a neurological trap, like a lie you can't not believe.

But when you think about for a bit, it's the opposite, it's a release. Twenty years later, the mathematician/physicist Roger Penrose (and his dad, psychologist Lionel Penrose) did it again. They hadn't seen Reutersvard's triangle. Theirs was drawn in perspective, which makes it even more challenging. Here's my version of their Penrose Triangle.
What's cool about this? I'm going to paraphrase science writer John D. Barrow, who has written about these triangles in several places: We know that these drawings can't exist in the physical world. Even as we look at them, particularly when we look at them, we know they are impossible. And yet, we can imagine them anyway. Our brains, it turns out, are not prisoners of the world we live in; we can fly free! We can, any time we like, create the impossible.

These triangles prove it. We don't feel crazy when we look at them, we laugh. We sense we've just stolen something or seen something that can't be out there in the world, and yet, here it is! As John Barrow puts it:
The impossible is not necessarily something that lies outside our mental experience even if it falls outside our physical experience. We can create mental worlds which are quite different from the one we experience. 
You find versions of "impossible triangles" in M.C. Escher's drawings, of course, but variants turn up in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories, in Jorge Luis Borges, in Breugel, in Magritte. We may be the only creatures on Earth that can break the rules this way. One of the most wonderful thing about the human mind, I think, is it can contradict itself, like this:


John D. Barrow has written about impossible triangles in his 1999 book Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. He's also included some in his picture book Cosmic Imagery: Key Images in the History of Science. He's a professor of mathematical sciences and director of the Millennium Mathematics Project at Cambridge University.

11 July 2013

Doug Englebart

From Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, 08 July 2013

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart 1925-2013

Doug Engelbart passed away last week. Even if you didn’t know him, there’s an 80% probability that you’re holding one of his inventions in your hand right now: a computer mouse.

Even though Engelbart is most famous for inventing the mouse, his real life’s work was to make user interfaces augment the human intellect. In fact, his project was called Augment for many years. The mouse saw reasonably fast uptake with only 20 years between Engelbart’s invention in 1964 and the first mainstream use in the Macintosh in 1984. But Engelbart’s deeper goals have yet to be realized, since most computers end up wasting our time as opposed to truly allowing us to have better insights.

As the simplest example of Engelbart’s vision being unfulfilled, he was a proponent of parallel input, with users employing both hands simultaneously. In addition to the mouse, he invented a chorded keypad where users could type with their other hand, instead of having to move their hand back and forth between the mouse and a traditional keyboard. See this photo from the Doug Engelbart Institute of Engelbart using his left hand to type and his right hand to point during his famous 1968 “mother of all demos” where he showcased revolutionary ideas like hypertext and multi-window user interfaces:
Photo from Engelbart's 1968 demo

I had the pleasure of meeting Doug Engelbart several times: besides being one of the main pioneers of human-computer interaction, he was a true gentleman. He will be missed.

04 July 2013

The Immortal Life of the Enron E-mails

By Jessica Leber in Technology Review, on July 2, 2013

A decade after the Enron scandal, the company’s internal messages are still helping to advance data science and many other fields.


Former Enron executive Vincent Kaminski is a modest, semi-retired business school professor from Houston who recently wrote a 960-page book explaining the fundamentals of energy markets. His most lasting legacy, however, may involve thousands of e-mails he wrote more than a decade ago at the energy-services company.

Kaminski, a former managing director for research who warned repeatedly about concerning practices he saw at Enron, is among more than 150 senior executives whose e-mail boxes were dumped onto the Internet by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on March 26, 2003. In the name of serving the public’s interest during its investigation of Enron, the federal agency made the controversial decision to post online more than 1.6 million e-mails that Enron executives sent and received from 2000 through 2002. FERC eventually culled the trove to remove the most sensitive and personal data, after receiving complaints (see PDF). Even so, the “Enron e-mail corpus,” as the cleaned-up version is now known, remains the largest public domain database of real e-mails in the world—by far.

This corpus, as it is known, is valuable to computer scientists and social-network theorists in ways that the e-mails’ authors and recipients never could have intended. Because it is a rich example of how real people in a real organization use e-mail—full of mundane lunch plans, boring meeting notes, embarrassing flirtations that revealed at least one extramarital affair, and the damning missives that spelled out corruption—it has become the foundation of hundreds of research studies in fields as diverse as machine learning and workplace gender studies.

This research has had widespread applications: computer scientists have used the corpus to train systems that automatically prioritize certain messages in an in-box and alert users that they may have forgotten about an important message. Other researchers use the Enron corpus to develop systems that automatically organize or summarize messages. Much of today’s software for fraud detection, counterterrorism operations, and mining workplace behavioral patterns over e-mail has been somehow touched by the data set.

“It’s like we are studying yeast,” says William Cohen, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who helped put the corpus in a database that could be mined by researchers. “It’s studied and experimented on because it is a very well understood model organism. [The e-mail generated by] Enron is similar. People are going to keep using it for a long time.”

The Enron e-mails were given their extended life by scientists at MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and the nonprofit research institute SRI International. Ten years ago, researchers at these institutions were collaborating on the DARPA-funded CALO project, which stands for “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes,” and whose biggest claim to fame is giving rise to Apple’s Siri software. For CALO, the researchers were cobbling together much smaller e-mail data sets to analyze.

When the Enron e-mails were posted in 2003, the researchers realized that they could be extremely useful for testing algorithms that could process written language and form the basis of intelligent workplace tools. Because FERC had posted the e-mails in an unusable format, MIT’s Leslie Kaelbling purchased the raw files from a government contractor for $10,000, and others spent time cleaning up the data—weeding out duplicates, organizing folders, taking out the remaining private attachments and e-mails, and mapping the senders and recipients to Enron’s organizational structure. The corpus, at first more than 517,431 e-mails, was whittled down to 200,000 by 2004.

A research ecosystem still blooms around the corpus because there is nothing else like it in the public domain. If it didn’t exist, research into business e-mails could be done only by people with access to big corporate or government servers. That probably would exclude social science, organizational, and linguistics researchers—many of whom have used the corpus to glean valuable insights into corporate culture, says Owen Rambow, a Columbia University professor involved in a research project that used the Enron corpus and received a $510,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Since 2010, about 30 papers a year have cited the original paper that presented the Enron corpus, Carnegie Mellon’s Cohen estimates. This year, for instance, researchers at HP Labs turned to the corpus to demonstrate an artificial intelligence program for automatically identifying the commitments people make over e-mail. Jafar Adibi, who worked on an early map of the Enron social network, says he still gets handfuls of inquiries every month, more and more from researchers outside of the United States. There is still an active list-serv devoted to discussing the corpus.

Researchers who have worked with the corpus know there won’t be another Enron. FERC released the e-mails back when the world still had a lot to learn about online privacy. The harms to people mentioned—most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing at Enron—were quickly apparent. Social security numbers and even bank records were in there. Though much private data has been removed, browsing hundreds of e-mails in Kaminski’s “sent” folder, I found a home phone number, his wife’s name, and an unflattering opinion he held of a former colleague. I also got the sense that he had been long, long overdue for the promotion he received in 2000. At the time the e-mails were first released, Kaminski, the manager of about 50 employees at Enron, said he was most disturbed to see his back-and-forth communications about HR complaints and job candid­ate evaluations become public. A job candidate he once interviewed got upset after their release.

Today, many people who work in highly regulated industries like finance avoid putting sensitive information in their e-mails. Kaminski, who later served as a managing director at Citigroup, notes that the acronym “LTOL” became popular e-mail lingo in the years following Enron. It stands for “Let’s take this offline.”

03 July 2013

Silicon Valley Can’t Be Copied

By Vivek Wadhwa, Technology Review on July 3, 2013

For 50 years, the experts have tried to figure out what makes Silicon Valley tick. The answer is people.

Classic cluster: The team at Fairchild Semiconductor, shown here in 1960 in San Jose, California, would produce the first integrated circuit from silicon. Two, Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, would later found Intel.

By 1960, Silicon Valley had already captured the attention of the world as a teeming technology center. It had spawned the microwave electronics industry and set a pattern for industry-academic partnerships. French president Charles de Gaulle paid a visit and marveled at its sprawling research parks set amid farms and orchards south of San Francisco.

Stanford University, which is at the heart of Silicon Valley, had given birth to leading companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Varian Associates, Watkins-Johnson, and Applied Technologies. These companies were pushing the frontiers of technology. There was clearly something unusual happening here—in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Soon enough, other regions were trying to copy the magic. The first serious attempt to re-create Silicon Valley was conceived by a consortium of high-tech companies in New Jersey in the mid-1960s. They recruited Frederick Terman, who was retiring from Stanford after having served as provost, professor, and engineering dean.

Terman, sometimes called the “father of Silicon Valley,” had turned Stanford’s fledgling engineering school into an innovation engine. By encouraging science and engineering departments to work together, linking them to local firms, and focusing research on the needs of industry, he created a culture of co√∂peration and information exchange that has since defined the region.

That was the mixture that New Jersey wanted to replicate. It was already a leading high-tech center—home to the laboratories of 725 companies, including RCA, Merck, and the inventor of the transistor, Bell Labs. Its science and engineering workforce numbered 50,000. But because there was no prestigious engineering university in the area, its companies had to recruit from outside, and they feared losing their talent and their best technologies to other regions. (Even though Princeton University was nearby, its faculty generally shunned applied research and anything that smelled of industry.)

New Jersey’s business and government leaders, led by Bell Labs, decided that the solution was to build a university much like Stanford. And that is what they hoped Terman would do.

Terman drafted a plan, but he could not get it off the ground, largely because industry would not collaborate. This history was documented by Stuart W. Leslie and Robert H. Kargon in a 1996 paper titled “Selling Silicon Valley.” They tell of how RCA would not sign up for a partnership with Bell Labs, how Esso didn’t want to share its best researchers with a university, and how Merck and other drug firms wanted to keep their research dollars in house. Despite common needs, companies would not work with competitors.

Terman would later try again in Dallas. But he failed for similar reasons.

In 1990, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter proposed a new method of creating regional innovation centers—this time around an existing research university. He observed that geographic concentrations of interconnected companies and specialized suppliers gave certain industries productivity and cost advantages. Porter postulated that by bringing these ingredients together into a cluster, regions could artificially ferment innovation.

Porter and legions of consultants following his methodology prescribed top-down clusters to governments all over the world. The formula was always the same: select a hot industry, build a science park next to a research university, provide subsidies and incentives for chosen industries to locate there, and create a pool of venture capital.

Sadly, the magic never happened—anywhere. Hundreds of regions all over the world collectively spent tens of billions of dollars trying to build their versions of Silicon Valley. I don’t know of a single success.

What Porter and Terman failed to recognize is that it wasn’t academia, industry, or even the U.S. government’s funding for military research into aerospace and electronics that had created Silicon Valley: it was the people and the relationships that Terman had so carefully fostered among Stanford faculty and industry leaders.

University of California, Berkeley, professor AnnaLee Saxenian understood the importance of people, culture, and connections. Her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley compared the evolution of Silicon Valley with that of Route 128—the ring around Boston—to explain why no region has been able to replicate the California success story.

Saxenian noted that until the 1970s, Boston was far ahead of Silicon Valley in startup activity and venture capital investments. It had a huge advantage because of its proximity to East Coast industrial centers. By the 1980s, Silicon Valley and Route 128 looked alike: a mix of large and small tech firms, world-class universities, venture capitalists, and military funding. And then Silicon Valley raced ahead and left Route 128 in the dust.

The reasons were, at their root, cultural. It was Silicon Valley’s high rates of job-hopping and company formation, its professional networks and easy information exchange, that lent the advantage. Valley firms understood that collaborating and competing at the same time led to success—an idea even reflected in California’s unusual rule barring noncompete agreements. The ecosystem supported experimentation, risk-taking, and sharing the lessons of success and failure. In other words, Silicon Valley was an open system—a giant, real-world social network that existed long before Facebook.

It also doesn’t hurt that Silicon Valley has excellent weather, is close to mountains and the ocean, and has a myriad of state-park hiking trails. These help foster a culture of optimism and openness.

Note that from 1995 to 2005, 52.4 percent of engineering and technology startups in Silicon Valley had one or more people born outside the United States as founders. That was twice the rate seen in the U.S. as a whole. Immigrants like me who came to Silicon Valley found it easy to adapt and assimilate. We were able to learn the rules of engagement, create our own networks, and participate as equals. These days, the campuses of companies such as Google resemble the United Nations. Their cafeterias don’t serve hot dogs; they serve Chinese and Mexican dishes, and curries from both northern and southern India.

This is the diversity—a kind of freedom, really—in which innovation thrives. The understanding of global markets that immigrants bring with them, the knowledge they have of different disciplines, and the links that they provide to their home countries have given the Valley an unassailable competitive advantage as it has evolved from making radios and computer chips to producing search engines, social media, medical devices, and clean energy technology.

The Valley is a meritocracy that’s far from perfect, however. And some of its flaws tear at the very fabric that makes it unique. Women and certain minorities like blacks and Hispanics are largely absent from the ranks of company founders and boards. Venture capitalists have a herd mentality and largely fund startups that produce short-term results—leading to a preponderance of social-media and photo-sharing apps. Real-estate prices are so high that most Americans can’t afford to relocate there.

All these things slow the Valley down, but they won’t stop it. The only serious challenge I see to Silicon Valley is, ironically, from the same government that once catalyzed its development. Silicon Valley is starved for talent. Restrictions on work visas prevent foreigners from filling its openings. The latest data indicate more than one million foreign workers on temporary work permits now waiting to become permanent residents. The visa shortage means some will have to leave, and others are getting frustrated and returning home.

This brain drain could bleed the life out of Silicon Valley’s companies. Then indeed we will have real competitors emerging in places like New Delhi and Shanghai. But it won’t be because they discovered some recipe for innovation clusters that finally works. It will be because we exported the magic ingredient: smart people.
Valley 2.0: Would-be entrepreneurs gathered in 2011 at Stanford University for Y Combinator’s Startup School.


Vivek Wadhwa is the author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent (Wharton Digital Press, 2012). Follow him on Twitter @wadhwa.

30 June 2013

Executive priorities as important as the bottom line

From the BBC series INFLUENCERS| 28 June 2013

Senior managers spend an awful lot of time plotting out and executing on strategies that aim to increase profits and bolster the corporate bottom line. That is, after all, a main tenet of their jobs. But, as a number of LinkedIn Influencers explored this week, managers in key leadership and senior executive roles must also find ways to cut unnecessary meetings, increase trust and uncover the next looming crisis. A look at what they had to say.

Rajat Taneja, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Electronic Arts


Meetings. They are the workday must that many professionals love and loathe. Good meetings move work forward, but ones that do not accomplish anything take away from time that could be better used, wrote Taneja in his post, Cut Down on Unnecessary Meetings.

“The greatest asset for knowledge workers is our time. How we spend our time determines the value we bring to our company, our profession and to society over the long term. The more efficient we are with the use of our time, the more returns we’ll see,” he wrote.

Taneja did his own experiment to track the value of the many meetings he attended. The result: “It turns out that the majority of my time was being spent on meetings that were really not very valuable. I had too many unnecessary long meetings that kept me from getting other important work done.”

Now Taneja adheres to a few rules to make sure his time — and that of others who work with him — is used effectively. Among them: “regular tracking of time spent against preset goals; allocate regular unscheduled time in a day to think…; only accept meetings that are ROI-positive; keep all meetings… to 30 minutes; and have clear goals for every meeting,” he wrote.

But his ultimate advice is easier said than done for many professionals. “You don’t always have to click ‘accept’ to every request – guard your time wisely and the results will pay off,” Taneja wrote

Don Peppers, Founding Partner, Peppers & Rogers Group at TeleTech


“Organizational trust represents the degree to which the employees of an organization are able to ‘count on’ their managers and fellow employees,” Peppers wrote in his post, Productivity Increases with Organizational Trust. “You trust an organisation when you think your fellow worker, or your manager, will always ‘have your back’.” The more employees trust the company or organization they work for, the more productive they are in their jobs — a good thing for the bottom line.

To get there, managers in a recent survey from the Human Capital Institute, a human resources and talent management research association, pinpointed the actions the leaders of an organisation should take to achieve a higher level of trust. “The top five leadership actions chosen were: set employees up for success by providing tools, resources and learning opportunities (41%); provide adequate information around decisions (41%); seek input prior to making decisions (40%); consistently act in alignment with the company’s values (35%); and give employees an inspiring shared purpose to work toward (28%).”

“The correlation between organisational trust and employee engagement is worth paying attention to,” Peppers wrote. “If you want your company to be successful, you need to cultivate a culture of trust, which will encourage your employees to work better with each other and to enjoy doing it. The general level of trust within your firm is directly connected to your firm's productivity and competitive success.

Peter Zaffino, President and Chief Executive Officer at Marsh


Zaffino, head of insurance broker and risk adviser Marsh, addresses the non-monetary risks that managers and company leaders, particularly in retail firms, need to look out for as they consider the fallout from a garment building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people. In addition to the potential for shoppers temporarily taking their business elsewhere, leaders must consider the potential impact of other key issues — and head them off before they become a problem.

Among them: “Reputational risk: The [building] collapse serves as a vivid reminder to organisations that, in many respects, the well being of its reputation and brand is in the hands of others. This is especially true in the highly competitive apparel market, where younger consumers tend to be more sensitive to issues broadly related to social responsibility,” Zaffino wrote. The solution: a carefully considered crisis management plan, he wrote. Zaffino also addressed supply chain and compliance risks managers need to plan for.

Other risks managers need to address before they become problems, he wrote, are compliance and supply chain risks.

Other voices:


Bruce Kasanoff, an entrepreneur and author wrote about the key reason managers should work to make their employees’ lives easier.

Chester Elton, author of All In, wrote about five ways great managers motivate employees over the summer.

16 June 2013

Australian General's Frank Talk On Sexual Abuse Wins Fans

by BILL CHAPPELL on NPR, June 14, 2013 4:11 PM

The growing problem of sexual assaults in the U.S. military has led to arguments in Congress, where lawmakers disagree over how to confront the issue. Top military officers have also weighed in on the topic. But in Australia, where the military has its own sexual assault problem, the army chief has a simple solution: "Show moral courage and take a stand." Those are the words of Lt. Gen. David Morrison, who is becoming something of an Internet celebrity for delivering a blunt, fury-fueled speech in which he categorically dismisses the idea that sexism of any type has a place in the military.

"The standard you walk past is the standard you accept," the general says. He later added that it's time for all members of the service to protect the legacy they leave to the next generation.

"If you're not up to it, find something else to do with your life," the general says. "There is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters."

A video of Morrison's speech was released this week by the Australian Army, which last year formed an independent Defense Abuse Response Taskforce to help it cope with sexual and other abuse.

News emerged this week of a military "Internet sex ring," as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, in which male army officers and employees of a defense contractor emailed one another videos and photos of naked women, along with "derogatory comments about their conquests," the paper reports.

At times, the men would also provide contact info, urging others to try to seduce the women. Australia's News.com reports that some of the women are members of the Australian Defense Force; others are civilians and government employees. The group of men called themselves the Jedi Council.

With a stern, unblinking stare, Morrison used his 3-minute video to lay out why such behavior denigrates the service, all veterans who have served in the past, and the Australian people, as well.

"Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this army," he says. "On all operations female officers and soldiers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us, maintaining our capability now and into the future."

"If that does not suit you, then get out," Morrison says. "You may find another employer where your attitude and behavior is acceptable, but I doubt it. The same goes for those who think that toughness is built on humiliating others."

Morrison backed that statement up this week, suspending three people identified as ringleaders of the group that emailed the inappropriate images and messages. More than 100 people are reportedly being investigated in the case.

"I will be ruthless in ridding the army of people who cannot live up to its values. And I need every one of you to support me in achieving this," Morrison tells his audience.

The video speech has won the respect of many people commenting online, with YouTube viewer loganbuchanan writing, "Why can't America be like this."

Others have praised the general for delivering a clear and strong message, as well as his impressive ability to forego blinking for long periods of time.

On his official bio page, Morrison says that his hobbies include "remembering when he used to play golf, staying fit, cooking and reading. He is married to Gayle and has three adult sons from a previous marriage."

In the United States, the rise of sexual assaults in the military has prompted outrage among the public and in Congress, where a senator recently blocked the promotion of an Air Force general who overruled a sexual assault finding against one of her officers.

And Thursday, the House approved "a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison for a member of the armed services convicted of rape or sexual assault in a military court," the AP reports.

But another proposed change, a bipartisan bill that would let military attorneys who are not in the victim's chain of command decide whether to bring a case to trial, has faltered in Congress. The House will not vote on the bill, and the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected a similar measure earlier this week.

Top military officers and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have urged against that measure, reports the news site Military.com.

11 June 2013

Lessons Learned - Following Orders


When the commander of the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) finds fault in the top-down culture of giving orders, he changes the process to force his officers to think like a captain.


With a shout of “Conn, maneuvering, reactor scram,” the engineer inserted the reactor shutdown deliberately, testing his department’s ability to find and repair a simulated fault. It was my first underway day on my new command, the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe (SSN-763).

In the control room, the officer of the deck (OOD), my senior department head, was doing all the right things. We had shifted propulsion from the main engines to an auxiliary electric motor, the emergency propulsion motor (EPM), to turn the propeller. The EPM can only power the ship at low speed because it draws down the battery.

The Santa Fe was coming in shallow to use its diesel engine to provide electrical power and keep the battery charged until the reactor was restarted. During the long troubleshooting period while the nuclear electronics technicians were isolating the fault, I started to get bored. I thought things were going too smoothly. I couldn’t let the crew think their new captain was easy.

I nudged the OOD and suggested we increase speed on the EPM from “ahead 1/3” to “ahead 2/3” to give the nuclear-trained technicians a sense of urgency.

“Ahead 2/3,” he ordered.

Nothing happened.

No one said anything as many awkward seconds passed. I asked the helmsman what was going on. He reported, “Captain, there is no ahead 2/3 on the EPM!”

I had made a mistake. Unlike every other submarine I’d been on, there was only a 1/3 on the EPM.

I applauded the helmsman and grabbed the OOD. In the corner of the control room, I asked him whether he knew there was no ahead 2/3 on the EPM.

“Yes, captain, I did,” he said.

“Well, why did you order it?” I asked.

“Because you told me to,” he replied.

That was the moment I learned how pernicious a top-down culture of compliance can be. I gathered the officers in the wardroom, and we set a plan to turn this around. From then on, I stopped giving orders and instead had the officers state their intentions to me before giving the order themselves. In addition to creating ownership in the minds of the officers, it forced them to think like a captain.

Not only did this result in immediate performance improvements, it proved powerful in the long run. Ten of those Santa Fe officers already have commanded or been selected to command submarines.

— David Marquetis a retired Navy captain. He resides in Nokomis, Fla.