When “good” is better than “best”

I ran across this interesting quote from Bruce Schneier on a competition for choosing a new general secure hash function:

NIST has stated that the goal of this process is not to choose the best standard but to choose a good standard. I think that’s smart of them; in this process, “best” is the enemy of “good.” My advice is this: immediately sort them based on performance and features. Ask the cryptographic community to focus its attention on the top dozen, rather than spread its attention across all 80 – although I also expect that most of the amateur submissions will be rejected by NIST for not being “complete and proper.” Otherwise, people will break the easy ones and the better ones will go unanalyzed.

I think it’s such an interesting statement because it so succinctly encapsulates the intrinsic dearth of time and resources that would be required to actually determine which is best.

With some lazy googling, I also came across this article about purchasing wine:

…consumers irrationally (at least from a wine lover’s perspective) chase after bottles that critics have awarded 90 points or more, but shun those in the 85 to 89 range, even though the lower-rated wines may be cheaper, more flexible with food and readier to drink.

Vintage ratings, like wine ratings in general, have a powerful psychological effect on consumers. The higher the number, the greater the desirability of the wine, which feeds into the myriad reasons people make their buying decisions. It should be no surprise that, as with cars, clothes, handbags and other consumer goods, status seeking, showing off and fear of embarrassment all play important roles.

Being Wrong is Right, but not in the education system

I listened to the TED talk of Sir Ken Robinson on education from the tweet of Chris Brogan.

The short quote:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

But there is a lot more there about how the education system is built to get people into college as an end in and of itself.

Sir Robinson also mentioned Picasso’s quote:

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

Birthday Wishlist

My birthday is coming up on the 24th of November. Twenty-six. In the tradition of my friend Rebecca, below is a list of things I would like.

Intangibles can be emailed to me at [email protected]

Tangibles can be mailed to me at the address below (email me if you need postage/shipping subsidy):

Ben Sheldon

12 Germania St. #2

Jamaica Plain, MA02130

GEO: 42.315195, -71.102057

Consumables (singular)

Please leave your name in the comments if you plan on getting me one of these, so I can take it off the list and not get a bajillion of them.

  1. Sack of beans for pie crust pre-baking (ie, I want the SACK, not necessarily the beans)
  2. Colorful ~4 cup teapot (not kettle) with tea strainer
  3. Banana Fruit Case (a lightweight case for carrying bananas unscathed)
  4. Silicon Baking Mat (for cookies, etc.)
  5. Ceramic loaf pan

Consumables (multiple)

  1. Small ~1” buttons— fun, emblamatic or colorful… but not ironic
  2. 1.5-2” ribbon (~2 feet worth) for brim of hat
  3. Multicolored v5 pens (red, yellow, green, etc.)
  4. Loose mint, kukicha, jasmine tea
  5. Smartwool socks (medium and heavy weight) for normal size foot (US 10½)
  6. Small wind-up toys

Mixed Media

  1. The name of a book (or a physical copy if you’re feeling generous) you like that is about (or contributes to a better understanding of) design, color theory, visual literacy or with magical realist (basically any spectacle that gives you giddy chills) themes
  2. A drawing of a bicycle (or other bio-motivated vehicle) you love or would love to have
  3. A sticker, postcard or primary scrap that represents or espouses an idea or ethos you both believe in and would defend to your grandma (or equivalent old-timey values stereotype… and no irony: it’s too complicated and she wouldn’t find it funny anyways—she’d tell you to say what you mean)
  4. A picture of an animal (or animals) that you regularly see

Geo-Contextual Bonus

Find a public spot in your neighborhood or regular route. Compose a short (~300+ word) real or imagined anonymous first-person narrative that begins “On this spot, …” (update: I removed the requirement to write the statement in the first-person.) Write the narrative such that it gives a potential reader the same sense of hope, wonder, and authentic symbolism that you would have should you, on that very spot, look down to find a fresh copper penny heads-up and, picking it from the pavement, find a perfectly minted heart upon the other side… and then putting it back on the ground, heads-up, for someone else to discover (i.e. write a story whose reading equates to that experience, not a story retelling of such an experience). Securely post with tape or staples your story to that spot in an easily viewable place. Send me the location (street address or cross-streets), a photograph of the posted story, and a copy of the story.)

Community Organizer = Community Outreach Minister

While wasting time on the political blogs, I ran across this interesting comment in the comments of an anti-community organizing article: Community Organizers are the same thing as Community Outreach Ministers :

The problem with the title “community organizer” is that most Americans are not familiar with it because it is an inner city position/term.

HOWEVER,people are familiar with the title of someone who does exactly the same job in the rural areas of America: the Community Outreach Minister.

This person is employed by a church to find and then help people who need it. Example: the poor elderly lady who needs a new roof; the family who has holes in their floor; the population pocket (community) that has no street lights or a recreation area with a hoop and with a baseball diamond; the extremely rural area that needs a paved road so that the school bus can pick up the children that live along the road.

I hope that this clarifies the job “community organizer.”

I tried googling: +”Community Organizer” +”Community Outreach Minister” and only got one hit, which makes it a North/South split, rather than an Urban/Rural one (though it could be the same commenter since its essentially the same set of examples—or I’m just adding to the echo chamber):

You all don’t know your lingo. A community organizer is the same thing as an community outreach minister in a church. The former is yankee and the latter is southern. The last church I belonged to did exactly what a community organizer does: got the (church) community to put a roof on an elderly (poor) lady’s house, put a floor in a poor man’s trailer, clothed a family whose home had burned down, and organized a group of families who lived on a dirt road to petition their senator for C-funds to pave the road so that the school bus could come up it and get their children. So what is your problem? Ignorance?

Buyer’s Remorse Hacking

I love reading Mac vs. PC pissing contests. The fact is, a computer, for most consumers (not workplace ROI), is a commodity device (though I admit the pissing usually takes place between niche users). That all being said, I enjoyed this thread on a recent Slashdot posting entitled “ Doing the Math On the New MacBook”:

Macs are design items. Some people don’t mind paying a higher price for something which appeals to them.

Price is what you pay, value is what you get. If you subjectively feel that the value of the product matches the price paid then an objective comparison is not significant.

Exactly ! That’s why there isn’t much point in trying to squeeze Macs in an objective comparison : you buy a Mac to get pleasure from purchasing a nice item, whereas you buy the winner of an objective comparison to get pleasure from being a smart customer.

We’re not talking about subjective value-feelings here; we’re talking about intentional manipulation by a sleak advertising campaign that turns people into drones who really do believe that there is something magical in a Mac that other computers don’t have.

Tell me, what is the marginal utility of that special Mac aura?

You’ve been had my friend.

For the record, in my current personal buying habits, I happen to subscribe to the middle quote: do what is within your budget and makes you feel good—even it that’s not buying anything at all. I’ve also come to realize, watching my coworker go through crazy rationalistic machinations about purchasing a new MacBook, it’s the process of making the decision to buy something that’s way more fulfilling than the possession itself. Cue Ze Frank on Choice.

Small Government / Small Paper

The story of the slightly smaller Government-Letter sized paper (from Wikipedia):

There is an additional paper size, to which the name “government-letter” was given by the IEEE Printer Working Group: the 8 in × 10½ in (203.2 mm × 266.7 mm) paper that is used in the United States for children’s writing. It was prescribed by Herbert Hoover when he was Secretary of Commerce to be used for U.S. government forms, apparently to enable discounts from the purchase of paper for schools. In later years, as photocopy machines proliferated, citizens wanted to make photocopies of the forms, but the machines did not generally have this size paper in their bins. Ronald Reagan therefore had the U.S. government switch to regular letter size (8½ in × 11 in). The 8 in × 10½ in size is still commonly used in spiral-bound notebooks and the like.

An alternative explanation in the past for the difference between “government size” (as government-letter size was referred to at the time) and letter size paper was that the slightly smaller sheet used less paper, and therefore saved the government money in both paper and filing space. However, when Reagan prescribed the change to letter size, it was commonly stated that U.S. paper manufacturers had standardized their production lines for letter size, and were meeting government orders by trimming ½” each from two sides of letter-size stock; thus the government was allegedly paying more for its smaller paper size before Reagan abolished it. The different paper size also reportedly restricted the government’s ability to take advantage of modular office furniture designs, common in the 1980s, whose cabinets were designed for letter size paper.

Blog Action Day: Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day and this year’s topic is Poverty. Since I’ve recently written about poverty directly, today I’ll be more lateral:

Today I am wearing:

  1. Cotton American Apparel T-Shirt (with print-design from Woot!)
  2. Denim Banana Republic Jeans
  3. Saucony Synthetic Running Shoes
  4. Old Navy Underwear
  5. Hanes Cotton Socks
  6. Leather Belt purchased from Brooklyn St. Fair with Levi’s Metal Belt Buckle
  7. Penguin Lambswool Sweater

Discussion Set 1: What types of information have I included in this list? What have I omitted? What types of information would you have included (or omitted)? Why?

Discussion Set 2: In my clothing, what could I have done differently, within the broad context of poverty? Why?

Discussion Set 3: How have you approached this exercise: Realistically, Positively, Pessimistically, Cynically, Pragmatically, Comprehensively, Reductionistically, etc? How did the context or presentation of this exercise affect how you did (or did not) perform it? How might someone else approach this exercise and why?

Discussion Set 4: Is this an appropriate exercise for addressing poverty?

Graphical Organization of the Talmud

Interesting explanation about the traditional layout of the Talmud. From Andrew on the Marks and Meaning mailing list

I’m reminded as you discuss this of the arrangement of texts in a traditional manuscript copy of the Talmud. Most printed copies are a bit different, but originally a Talmud page was divided into nine squares like a tic-tac-toe grid. Sometimes the central box was further subdivided, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The central box served as the location of the primary text to be analyzed in the original Hebrew — usually it was a Torah or Haftorah portion. The boxes to the left and right were explanations of the vowel-pointing for this piece of text; in other words, they were commentaries on what the Hebrew ./meant./ — what actual words were in play here, along with a brief definition of unusual or rare words. The boxes above and below the main text were set up to act as containers for alternate versions of the story, or stories that played off of elements in the center box.

The four corner pieces were commentaries on the main text from Rabbis Hillel, Gamaliel, and the other two — eminent masters riffing jazz- like off of the core beat at the center, or arguing the left-right interpretations, or further explicating the up-down side-stories.

All of the boxes — ALL — would shift size on the page to accommodate all the various elements. If there was a long commentary from one of the rabbis but little else, that box would expand, and the Torah portion would shrink until it was only the verse, or even the word, relevant to that commentary. Conversely, (though it didn’t happen often), if there were a long story in the Torah with little commentary, several verses would get squeezed into one large box, with eight small and almost empty boxes circling it.

The point was, there were nine books crammed into one. Hillel always occupied the same square on the page. The Babylonian Haggadah (stories) was always above the Torah, the Palestinian Haggadah always below. You could read one commentator exclusively, or read the Torah or Haftorah exclusively, or try to read all the commentaries on all of Torah simultaneously.

Ed also posted some more visual links:

An annotated page: http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudPage.html

Talmud style layout in HTML (with fixed size boxes, so not precisely) http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudMap/Samples.html

Making ReCAPTCHA not suck

I really like using the Drupal CAPTCHA system with ReCAPTCHA (the one that helps scan in books). Both of them suck in the standard “Drupal makes everything ugly and hard to use by default, but it’s still easier than building something from scratch”.

One of ReCaptcha’s problems is that the words are sometimes hard to read. To deal with that, I used this tip from a Stumbleupon developer in the comments of this post entitled ReCAPTCHA’s quality is going down? : putting a link to reload—Recaptcha.reload()—the CAPTCHA in the explanation. To do that, I pasted this into the Challenge Description setting on the CAPTCHA admin page:

` To prevent spam, please type the two words you see below separated by a space. Can’t read the words? `

I also used CSS to hide the fieldset border box and title from the comments to cut down on the cruft too.

Nonprofits and the Economy of Free

My RSS feeds of late have been delivering to me many interesting posts by Chris Anderson as he explores the different kinds of free. I’ve been specifically interested in his visualizations of the Advertising Model of Free: advertisers pay for advertising, which subsidizes programming, which is then given away for free, with the goal being that consumers will purchaser those original advertiser’s products. There is a great explanation of how broadcast advertising works in the Denver Open Media’s Opening Access video (at about the 1 minute, 30 second mark).

Chris Anderson’s graphic of the same thing is below (C is Consumer, P is Producer, A is Advertiser):

Advertising Model

This model of Free is very similar to the standard nonprofit model of giving: Foundations/Donors (D) provide support to Nonprofit Organizations (NP) which then provide free services to Clients/Constituents (C):

Nonprofit Donor Model

That all being said, the nonprofit model doesn’t quite have the same symmetry. In fact, it’s missing a piece that, at least in my experience, very rarely is talked about: what is the relationship of Foundations/Donors to the Clients/Constituents?

I’ve previously explored some of the reasons why nonprofits have arisen in the way they have, including middle-class guilt about the disparities between the affluent and the poor; wealth-transfer mechanisms for the rich; dissatisfaction with the profit motive as an incentive to extract work and induce consumption; greater abundance in society general; and the inability for government agencies to provide services to meet growing needs as a result of the widening gap between rich and poor.

Putting those in context of clients/constituents, the actual people being served, there isn’t that much of a relationship: as a person receiving assistance, one would not care much weather it was coming from the Ford Foundation or the Carnegie Foundation—it is the quality and efficacy of the services that matter, and those are being delivered via the nonprofit.

One way to look at this (and there are many), is to think of the Clients/Constituents as just one part of the larger Society (S):

Nonprofit Donor Model with Society

In this case, what is being transferred between Foundations/Donors and Society in general: reputation, legitimacy, restitution, validation….? That’s an interesting question.