1. Educational Uncertainty

    November 25, 2008 by Craig

    Although I don’t have much real by way of reliable comparisons, I think I attended a pretty decent science program in high school. Our teacher was actually involved in the scientific community (instead of being a teacher who has science thrust upon him) and made an effort to introduce real scientific principles into the classroom. (He also shares a name with a very famous writer so he’s completely un-Googleable.) From what I’ve read, most other students are not so lucky.

    Eventually, he taught us about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Of course, he taught that it was the fact that you can’t know both the position and the momentum (speed) of a particle at any given time. He explained this in terms of trying to measure electrons; to do so, you needed to bounce photons off of them, and this changed both their position and momentum. This fundamental fact meant that particles didn’t really have a precise position in the classical sense, and so we had to think of particles as being somewhat random/probabilistic at quantum levels.

    To me, this particular argument made sense, but it didn’t seem to explain why this was an all-encompassing principle of physics. Was there really no other way to measure electrons? What about other particles? Isn’t this just a problem with our technology & process? Why does it have to be a fundamental property of particles? Surely they have both a definite position & momentum, even if we can’t measure it.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t ask these questions at the time. Looking back on it, Mr. Adams probably wouldn’t have been able to provide satisfactory answers anyway. None of the other students raised similar questions, and I have to assume that most of them didn’t consider them in the first place. Over the years, I’ve seen similar explanations from a wide variety of sources.

    Then, on one of my random walks down Wikipedia, I happened to come across an description for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that not explained its fundamentality but also explained why the common answer I’d been told was completely incorrect.

    In quantum mechanics, the particle is described by a wave. The position is where the wave is concentrated and the momentum, a measure of the velocity, is the wavelength…. The only kind of wave with a definite position is concentrated at one point, and such a wave has an indefinite wavelength. Conversely, the only kind of wave with a definite wavelength is an infinite regular periodic oscillation over all space, which has no definite position. So in quantum mechanics, there are no states which describe a particle with both a definite position and a definite momentum. The narrower the probability distribution is for the position, the wider it is in momentum.

    To understand the HUP, you first need to ditch the idea that particles are discrete balls of stuff, and instead think of a wave in motion. Think back to the Slinky wave experiments you may have done in school (if you haven’t, this YouTube clip is a good substitute). What’s important is the change in distance between the coils (which make up the abstract entity known as the “wave”), not the coils themselves. You can’t point to the wave as being “at” any particular position in the slinky; you have to measure it over a given distance. You can start with the entire length of slinky, and reduce that down to smaller and smaller (ie: more “precise”) chunks, but there’s no discrete part where you can say “here is where the wave is”. The wave is defined by its wavelength, which in turn is directly related to its momentum (speed). But you can only measure momentum by measuring over a distance. Thus, as you gain a more precise measure of momentum, your measure of position necessarily has to be less precise.

    This is not the same thing as saying “measuring one value will necessarily change the other.” This is better described as “the description of either quantity on its own is meaningless; are really two opposing aspects of the same property”. In fact, the common explanation of the HUP is really an explanation of a completely separate issue: the Observer Effect. Both Wikipedia articles on the HUP and the observer effect talk about how the two are often conflated in the minds of the layperson (including those who instruct others). Furthermore, the Observer Effect article explains how it’s not a fact specific to weird quantum particles (which is another explanation I see on a regular basis) but in fact is a class of issues that applies to many separate circumstances.

    The misexplanation surrounding the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect is one of many examples of how laypeople and popular culture can get the wrong idea about natural / scientific issue. Another common one is lift: the force that keeps airplanes in the air. More than likely you’ve seen an explanation of how lift works that involves the air over a wing flowing faster than the air under it. This is wrong. There’s lots of other examples too.

    Most people won’t ever need to know the details of how these principles work. But that then raises the question: why are we spending time teaching them in the first place? If it’s important to have a base of not-immediately-useful knowledge, then why do we accept incorrect knowledge to fill that void?

  2. Perspective

    November 22, 2008 by Craig


    Market graphs can tell very different stories depending on the particular timeframe.

    I’m a very visual person. Any time I need to analyze something, I make a picture, either physically or in my own head. I can’t do mental math without having a mental piece of paper with mental numbers written on it. A series of numbers is not very useful to me… but blot those numbers on graph and I can easily see the trends.

    Today I was listening to the Marketplace Podcast for my usual dose of business news. Of course, the talk was all about the recent financial mess. Since I was at my computer, I decided to check out the graphs for the S&P 500 (one of the best indicators for overall stock market performance in the U.S). I hadn’t kept up on them recently, so I thought it was a good time for some updated information.

    The numbers and graphs themselves didn’t really impress me; they mostly followed what I’d been listening to for the past few days/weeks/years. What prompted my blog post was how different the graphs looked depending on the timeframe.

    Follow along with me as I show you what I mean. A few notes first:

    • All charts are courtesy Yahoo Finance. Their old charts are still the best ones out there IMO. Since I couldn’t figure out a way to lock them to a specific date, I’ve copied these particular instances directly to my site (Yahoo, please don’t sue me).
    • For the latest charts, go to their S&P 500 page. There’s lots of graphing options there for your pleasure.
    • You can click each graph for the full-sized version.
    • All of these charts are on logarithmic y-axes. That means that they emphasize relative (percentage) gains, not absolute gains. This is important when understanding trends, especially over longer periods of time. Any amount of absolute change will mean different things depending on whether it’s applied to a large or small value.
    • I’ve also added some example analysis of what each picture could represent, absent of outside context.

    Past 1 Day

    First of all, here’s the 1-day view (for Friday, November 21, 2008):

    S&P 500 1d 2008-11-22

    Based on this picture, you could say that the market had a great day, although it started out pretty mundane. But things are looking up.

    Past 5 Days

    Here’s the view of the past week.

    S&P 500 5d 2008-11-22

    This picture shows a down period. The last half of the week was definitely rocky, but there’s nothing earthshattering here. It looks like there’s a recovery started.

    Past 3 Months

    Moving right along, here’s the past quarter-year:

    S&P 500 3m 2008-11-22

    There’s a clear downward trend. It’s a fairly straight line. There’s a few significant dips, but they’re followed by recoveries that bring it back to the main trend line. This is troubling.

    Past Year

    S&P 500 1y 2008-11-22

    Wow, check out that big drop after a mild decline. Things must be going to hell.

    Past 5 Years

    S&P 500 5y 2008-11-22

    OMG, we’re in an nosedive! Something is seriously broken to take a drastic turn like that. EVERYBODY PANIC!


    This is the full history of the S&P 500 since its inception 50 years ago. Unfortunately Yahoo has no finer granularity between 5 years and max.

    S&P 500 max 2008-11-22

    The trend here is clear: the stock market has been climbing at a pretty steady rate since the formation of the index. I have some additional notes:

    • Regardless of the long-term trend, there’s lots of bumps along the way.
    • I eyeballed the slope of the line between the start of the graph and 1995, and then extended that line to the current day. My imaginary line happened to match the current value of the S&P 500. With this analysis, you could consider the current crash to be a big correction from the much-higher-than-average growth that we’ve had since 1995 (especially before 2000).
    • The biggest dip (2001-2003) is the one that follows the longest period of smoothness (1991-2000).
    • The downward periods tend to be shorter and steeper than the upward periods. Each bump leands towards the right.
    • The current downturn looks a lot like the triple-whammy we had in early part of the decade caused by the dotcom crash, 9/11, and the Enron/corporate accounting scandals.
    • There’s other downturns too. Check out 1973-1975; the drop there it has a similar profile and depth to the one we’re in now. Note the hard floor around year-end. The recovery is interesting too: there’s a clear trend up, but it takes the rest of the decade to best the previous high.
    • You may remember the huge crash of 1987 (I was 10 at the time; it was one of my first exposures to the financial world). Note the sharp spike; the steep slopes on both sides of the peak makes the event stand out like a thumbtack. Note that the market continued its climb afterward.

    I don’t want to make too much of these graphs or my analyses. I think these are more “interesting” than “predictive”. But I do think that it’s good to see the difference perspective makes.

  3. Hockey Night Not In Canada

    November 12, 2008 by Craig

    Marco and his wife are coming to visit, and want to take in a hockey game; preferably the Calgary Flames.

    • Craig: st louis blues on fri, ny rangers on sunday
    • Marco: ok. Either one is good. Rangers is my pick.
    • Craig: FL panthers on the 12th, too bad you’ll be gone 😛
    • Marco: yeah.
    • Marco: well, it’s better than watching the home team lose.
    • Craig: hehe
    • Craig: oh those are away games
    • Craig: yeah sorry you’re outta luck this year
    • Marco: no hokey?
    • Craig: unless we go to a minor-league game
    • Craig: no Flames in Calgary
    • Craig: they’re on the road that week/end
    • Marco: damn republicans
    • Craig: hah the hitmen [the local minor league team] are away that week too
    • Craig: so no hockey
    • Marco: ok
    • Marco: well, so be it
    • Craig: unless you want to find a college team or something
    • Marco: u have an Xbox 360?
    • Marco: or a WII?
    • Craig: I do
    • Craig: both actually 😛
    • Marco: we will buy a hockey game
    • Craig: haha
    • Marco: and tell Gina that this is how it’s now played
    • Marco: by canadians
    • Marco: because with global warming all the rinks are liquid
    • Craig: tell her we used to play on the northwest passage

  4. Welcome to the Layer Cake

    by Craig

    bobalu49 asks via Twitter:

    marketing/selling is a “higher” level than building/implementing?

    …in reference to my recent blog post.

    I wrote that based on my experience (with the quotes thrown in for ironic effect). In the companies that I’ve worked at, the sales & marketing teams had more authority than the implementation teams. Thus, to gain more authority, I should begin to expand outside the implementation realm and into the marketing and sales realm — so my thought went.

    Let’s assume for the moment that my observation of the relative power levels was true, and in fact is generally true of most organizations. It’s not necessarily “bad”. Both marketing and implementation are critically important to any business:

    • Without implementation, you have nothing to sell, and thus no reason for the business to exist.
    • Without marketing, you have no idea what to implement, and thus are at a risk of wasting your capital on implementing the wrong thing.

    I’ll even go as far as to argue that marketing should have a priority role over implementation, as they’re the ones that need to set the direction of the business. They’ll set the goals for the implementers.

    The problem I had with the businesses I’ve worked in is that the implementation teams were a lot more capable and insightful than the marketing teams. They were able to recognize marketing problems that the marketing team couldn’t. In those situations, the marketing team should have ceded authority to the implementation team. When they didn’t, the business ended up taking bad directions, leading to squandered efforts. Not only is this wasteful, but it’s also frustrating, and led me to a lot of job dissatisfaction.

    So, one of my goals is to reverse the process: learn marketing from an implementation point of view and hope that I can result in a net benefit to the organizations I work with. I know I’m not an excellent marketer, but I might be a better one than the marketers are implementers, and I might be able to alleviate some of the friction that occurs between the two factions.

  5. Marketing Checklist

    November 11, 2008 by Craig

    Lately I’ve been considering making a bit of a career shift from an implementation-focused roll (ie: a guy who builds stuff) to a “higher” level: a guy who sells stuff. I started this train of thought after watching Obie Fernandez’s excellent talk on becoming a successful consultant.

    So, I’ve started researching. I’m reading books and blogs on the topic of marketing. Thusfar it hasn’t been terribly encouraging; the words of sales wisdom that I’ve seen multiple times are often so foreign to me that I begin to wonder if I can do this at all.

    Seth Godin has a good post entitled “The Marketer’s Attitude”. I’m going to use it as a tool to explain the sorts of conundrums I’m facing as I look forward on my career.

    You’re relentlessly positive.

    The very first point and I’m already down one. I’m not especially positive; in fact, if anything, I’m more typically negative. This view has its uses: I see the world as a set of problems and come up with ways to fix them. However, when trying to convince anyone of my views, being positive is the way to go. I think this is something that I could learn (or at the very least learn to fake) but it will take lots of effort.

    You can visualize complex projects and imagine alternative possible outcomes.

    I believe I’m pretty good at this. I very often seen potential problems that other people have missed. I don’t see every possible outcome though; other people still point out alternatives that I haven’t considered.

    It’s one thing to talk about thinking outside the box, it’s quite another to have a long history of doing it successfully.

    Agreed. But am I better at this than the average person? I don’t think I can answer this myself (former coworkers: can you?)

    You can ride a unicycle, or can read ancient Greek.

    Two negatives here, but I do know a something (often quite a bit) about a lot of different topics — some quite diverse.

    Show me that you’ve taken on and completed audacious projects,

    I’m not so great here. My (completed) projects are, in my opinion at least, quite mundane.

    and run them as the lead, not as a hanger on.

    I’m never quite a “hanger on”, but I’ve never really had a “lead role”, either officially or de facto. I do try to take on leadership responsibilities (especially when there’s a power vacuum) but I’ve never developed it into a solid position.

    I’m interested in whether you’ve become the best in the world at something,

    Well, I’m very good at software development and at reasoning. “Best in the world” is, of course, an exaggeration for nearly everybody (except one person), but I think Seth’s point is clear.

    and completely unimpressed that you are good at following instructions (playing Little League baseball is worth far less than organizing a non-profit organization).

    I can certainly follow instructions. I don’t always. My goal is to get things done; following instructions is only a possible means to that end.

    You have charisma in that you easily engage with strangers

    I’m not so good here. I can engage with strangers, but not “easily”; it takes constant effort. I do it because I have to (and it’s worth doing so), not because I like it.

    and actually enjoy selling ideas to others.

    Now here is where I shine. The major purpose of this blog is to sell ideas. In fact, that’s the big reason I’d engage with a stranger: to sell them my idea. I wish I was more effective at this (hence my study of marketing), but there’s no question I enjoy the end results.

    You are comfortable with ambiguity, and rarely ask for detail or permission.

    3 different points but I have to answer them together. I don’t care about permission per se, but I do care about the consequences when not asking for permission goes bad. The same goes for detail; I’m more than happy to fill-in-the-blanks when I’m not given enough detail, but I’m not happy to have to redo it and/or face (unjustified) criticism over the choices I’ve made. Since I work in an incredibly detail-dependent industry, I’ve learned to specifically avoid ambiguity and detail-seeking behavior. However, this is something I could unlearn easily — once I learn how to deal with the consequences.

    Test, measure, repeat and go work just fine for you.

    This is a must in my line of work. I think there’s not enough of this in other lines of work, and want to bring this philosophy to the rest of the world.

    You like to tell stories

    This depends on the story. Some come naturally, and I enjoy those. Being forced to tell a story usually doesn’t work as well.

    and you’re good at it.

    I’m probably weak here. Sometimes I can do really well though. What I do know is that my story-telling abilities are at least unreliable.

    You’re good at listening to stories,

    I’m definitely good here. I listen freely, and push myself to listen even above and beyond what’s necessary.

    and using them to change your mind.

    I think I’m pretty good here too. If someone has a good story (ex: accurate) then I’ll definitely apply it to my own beliefs.

    I’d prefer to hire someone who is largely self-motivated,

    Gold star here. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I’m exclusively self-motivated. I’ll rarely do something just because someone tells me to. However, it’s very easy for me to get on-board with a task when someone needs it done. I’ll take initiative if there’s a lack of direction.

    who finds satisfaction in reaching self-imposed goals,

    This is pretty much my entire reason for being. 😛

    and is willing to regularly raise the bar on those goals.

    Well, I’m here writing about how I can become better at marketing, aren’t I?

    You’re intellectually restless.

    I’m intellectually ADHD.

    You care enough about new ideas to read plenty of blogs and books,

    Check. I wish there were more waking hours in the day and/or didn’t have to work for a living so I could read more.

    and you’re curious enough about your own ideas that you blog or publish your thoughts for others to react to.

    Hrm, not sure on this one. *cough*.

    You’re an engaging writer

    On this point I have to let you be the judge. I know that I like reading my own blog posts. However, I don’t have a huge audience, and a lot of time my business writing falls on deaf ears. I don’t know whether this is a function of me or a function of external forces.

    and speaker

    I’m pretty sure that I don’t speak as convincingly as I write. I think I could learn this though, with enough effort.

    and you can demonstrate how the right visuals can change your story.

    This is something I’m learning. I like pictures and diagrams. I often draw diagrams to illustrate ideas to technical audiences. My next stop is learning how to create good visuals to illustrate points to non-technical audiences. (This is part of my “effective speaking” foray; funny how I’m relying on non-verbal tactics to accomplish this).

    And you understand that the system is intertwined,

    I’d say “better than most people” in fact.

    that your actions have side effects

    I know this. Predicting side effects is tricky. I maybe know this too well.

    and you not only care about them but work to make those side effects good ones.

    Check. Achieving this is possibly a different story.

    So, this is a mixed bag. I actually did better than I expected (especially towards the end). There’s lots of stuff that a) not only do I need to work on, but b) I’m not sure that I’ll ever be very good at, given what I know about my psyche. But I do know that I have to try.

    That was fun. Comments are most appreciated.

  6. Wikipedia Tourism #15

    November 10, 2008 by Craig

    From Nipple Ring History.

    Years later, during the Victorian period around 1890, the fashion evolved again. It became popular to apply Anneux De Sein, small diamond rings or gold chains, to the nipples. Before this trend was popularized, it was mainly practiced by the upper class.

    The linked page contains pictures of bare female nipples. Safe for babies, but not necessarily safe for work.

  7. Twitter

    November 4, 2008 by Craig

    I’ve finally figured out a use for Twitter now. Rather than IMing all of the minor snippets of thought I have throughout the day (and often duplicating those messages for multiple recipients), I just post them to Twitter and let the Internet propagate them.

    Here’s my twitter page for anyone who is interested.