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2011

Primary vs secondary tasks

Random thought exercise: Are you safer being driven by someone who is doing it as their job (e.g. taxi driver) or by yourself or a friend who drives on an as-needed basis?

The obvious first question: What is the accident rate for taxis, limos, truck drivers and regular cars? There's a suprisingly relevant result titled Taxicab and Livery Crashes in New York City 2004 which while a little dated does have some good numbers.

Crash rates are one-third lower for taxicabs and liveries than for other types of vehicles. The crash rate was 4.6 taxicabs involved in reported accidents per million miles traveled and 3.7 liveries involved in reported accidents per million miles traveled, compared with 6.7 vehicles involved in reported accidents per million miles for all vehicles in New York City, in 2004.

It would be easy to conclude that people who drive all day are simply better at it (see the 10,000 Hour Rule) but that wouldn't be the whole story. The paper goes on to identify a couple of other incentives which would seem to play a much more significant role.

A different explanation appears to lie behind the drop in livery crashes since 1999. Since 2001, insurance companies that underwrite livery vehicles have more carefully tailored auto insurance premiums to driving records. While the livery industry has for many years had an incentive to drive more safely and reduce insurance costs, the benefits would accrue only to the industry as a whole. Changes in insurance underwriting brought this relationship to the vehicle level, so that drivers with accidentprone records now bear the brunt of higher insurance premiums. This has apparently led to more careful driving among livery drivers

A great example of the real world impact of a policy refinement. In this case, the tighter alignment of goals (specific drivers rather that fleets/industry being held accountable) looks like a win all round. But is it?

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Searching habits and the value of rare words

One of the interesting aspects of working on search relevance is that it really makes you think about how to be succinct and specific in the expression of a concept. Looking at dissatisfaction reports with search engines gives a little insight into the challenges people face every day in expressing what they're looking for.

For example it's tempting -- and very common -- to describe something in general terms with the expectation it'll be easier to find. It definitely easier to find something that way but the chances of it being what you're looking for are generally worse. It's almost always better to think of the most rare characteristic of what you're looking for and search for that instead.

Of course search engines are trying to reduce the frequency with which this happens by relying more heavily on on context, history, and other things, but it never helps to be more specific whenever possible.

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Boeing 777: Connect any two cities in the world nonstop

From the description of the Boeing 777:

One of the newest members of the 777 family, the 777-200LR Worldliner has the capability to connect virtually any two cities in the world nonstop. It will carry more passengers and more revenue cargo farther than any other jetliner. Also, the 777-200LR can carry a full cargo load on routes where other airplanes are payload limited. This gives airlines the capability to carry the same number of passengers farther and with additional revenue-generating cargo.

Connect any two cities in the world nonstop. An immensely compelling yet succinct statement of ambition.

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Level 5 leadership

From a slide deck on Level 5 leadership, on the subject of unwavering resolve:

They possess inspired standards, cannot stand mediocrity in any form, and utterly intolerant of anyone who accept the idea that good is good enough.
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Clarke's three laws

Clarke's laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
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Weekly link roundup

Random things shared on Twitter from the week:

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On diets: the easier the better?

The claim is simple: Drinking Water Before Meals Aids Weight Loss. By filling the stomach with water before a meal, the sense of hunger is reduced and consumption falls correspondingly.

The 2007 study shows a difference in the effectiveness of this method dependent on age; little effect under age 35 with increased effectiveness in the older population. Does this really just come down to increased risk in the older population or some other hidden driver?

I'd love to see a longer term study over multiple years on this. Could the simplicity of this approach set it up to be easier to maintain as a simple healthy habit as opposed to a forced, non-enjoyable dieting behavior?

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Trends in technology

Data points I saw in a presentation recently with some of my thoughts inline:

As late as the 1940s, the product cycle stretched 30-40 years whereas today it seldom lasts 30 to 40 weeks The product cycle also includes that phase of 'end of life' which is becoming similarly compressed. In hardware and software, the total lifespan rarely exceeds 4 years. I'm not sure how much this can be compressed but suspect that there's a limit at which the cost of familiarization/installation becomes a meaningful portion of the overall lifespan of the product, at which point it'll essentially flatten out.

80% of scientists, engineers and doctors who ever lived are alive today Population growth makes this a tiny bit misleading but it's still a staggering realization.  How many of those are in the US? How many 10 years from now?

All the technical knowledge we work with today will represent only 1% of the knowledge that will be available in 2050 Again this has to be balanced against the creation of an 'exabyte per day' but by then we'd better be surrounded with better research and mining tools than we have today.

The half-life of an engineer's knowledge today is only five years. In electronics, fully half of what a student learns as a freshman is obsolete by his or her senior year Which is why education in these fields should focus on problem solving and the ability to leverage prior research rather than learning by rote.

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Weekly link roundup

Random things shared on Twitter from the week:

  • Bing Touch and Decide: Introducing Bing for iPad  http://ao.vc/i9lcFT
  • RT @ash_fontana: OH: You are what you don't automate.
  • RT @noah_weiss: Just found at Color has not a single PM.  That's the best advertisement I've ever seen for why PMs are useful.  Thanks!
  • Moving beyond teachers and bosses http://ao.vc/fKAKmT
  • Julius Irving: Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.
  • The Joy of Tech comic... Everyone's an "innovator". http://ao.vc/f0FnvP