Why the Arsenic Aliens were Disappointing

Some bacteria learned to survive and thrive in an environment rich in Arsenic, a normally poisonous element to life. It’s poisonous because chemically it’s almost interchangeable with Phosphorus (note their same column position in the Periodic Table). It’s usually not interchangeable enough and ends up causing problems and interrupting all sorts of necessary biochemical reactions in your body, but these new forms of bacteria were able to work out the kinks and make Arsenic work.

Scientists created this new life form, not nature.

Very interesting, but profoundly disappointing from speculation earlier in the week. Even more disappointing is that the researchers didn’t even discover this bacteria using Arsenic in the wild. They “removed the phosphorus and replaced it with arsenic the microbes continued to grow. Subsequent analyses indicated that the arsenic was being used to produce the building blocks of new GFAJ-1 cells. ” (NASA)

At minimum I thought they had discovered life provably independent in origin from other life forms on Earth. This bacteria descended from the same path we did.

One of life’s great questions is, were we a fluke?

It’s likely that there is life out there in the Universe, but it’s unclear how rare it is. If we ever find bacterial life elsewhere in the solar system or discover that life “sparked” more than once on Earth we can assume the universe is full of aliens. That’s a discovery that would have “changed everything.”

Some day we'll find aliens

Rob Kolstad is an Asshole

This month’s Wired has a great article (not online yet, so no link) by Jason Fagone about the International Olympiad in Informatics where high school students from all over the world compete to solve problems through software. It’s fiercely competitive and has its own sub culture of super stars, namely Gennady Korotkevich of Belarus, who at 14 became the youngest world champion.

What should have been an inspiring and interesting look into this academic sport with open ended problems such as how to best determine the language of a given text string, went sour for me when Fagone brought up US coach, Rob Kolstad, who admits he doesn’t “know how to do most of the algorithms.” After Korotkevich won his second straight Olympiad at 15, Kolstad remarked, “the question is, will he die a virgin?

I expect smartasses with no respect for the brilliance of these kids to say something like that, but not someone who works with them every day and helps them train. He’s not someone I want to represent the US either.

Rob Kolstad
US Coach Rob Kolstad, who clearly does very well with the ladies.

Sorry, it just made me angry.

Scariest thing I’ve read all year: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

When Will Ferrel describes his George W Bush impression, he says he just imagines having a lot of “unearned confidence.” How would you know if you were one of these people? I first heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect in a comment on Hacker News and it immediately made me question a lot of things.

David Brent: Classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning?Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes

Throughout my life I’ve forced myself to be confident in my abilities (ie. gotten out of my comfort zone) in an effort to improve my skills and do more things. I’ve always considered being optimistic and determined to succeed was a positive thing.

Luckily, according to Dunning and Kruger if I suffered from this effect I wouldn’t be able to recognize and change anyway. WIN.

Am I Achieving My 2010 Goals?

Ouch. I just looked up my goals for 2010 and I am NOT doing well. Here’s my progress so far.

1. Read 12 Books – Easily completed this already. A few I listened to using Audible.com and I read the Purple Cow on my iPhone with the Kindle app.

So far I’ve read
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Ed Tufte
Priceless by William Poundstone
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Daemon by Daniel Suarez
The Purple Cow by Seth Godin
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Start with No by Jim Camp
Born to Run by Chris McDougall
The Road by Corman McCarthy
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

I’m still working on Under the Dome by Stephen King and Envisioning Information by Ed Tufte. Under the Dome is so big I can’t bring it with me when traveling. I’m about halfway through Ghost War, but I don’t know if I’ll finish it. It’s great, but it will take me forever.

2. Run a sub 23 minute 5K – There is no way this is happening this year. I ran one last month and my time was 25:14. I think I can get down to 24:30 in a month and I’m ok with that.

3. Write 5 Songs – Total failure. I really thought I’d be able to do this, but song writing has escaped me this year. I haven’t written a single new song. In fact, I’ve probably only written 2 in the last three years. Sad. I’ve been getting the bug to start playing more, though.

5. Finish my House – Well, I sold it so does that count? It sold in two days, which was awesome.

6. 6 batches of beer – Fail. I have a batch brewing now, but it’s my only 2010 batch.

So I’ve completed 2/6, but really failed at 4. Better luck next year!,

Increasing Data Density in Web Design

I changed the layout on this site in response to what I took away from my session with Ed Tufte. Here’s an applicable quote from Tufte:

Whatever reasonably serves the content, avoids non-content pixels (including navigation and designer pixels) as much as possible, favors user scanning over substantial amounts of material rather than premature linking, reduces impediments to learning, and never requires the phrase “skip intro” on its frontpage. All this usually implies that there should be between 100 and 400 content links on the frontpage, just like a good news site.

Nearly all users come to a website for a content experience, not a designer experience.

So my new layout tries to increase the data density. I shrunk my header (the eyes will probably change) and added links to my previous 200 posts. The titles of these posts say more about me than any “About me” text and provide an easy way for people to peruse my content.

Tufte Course Review and Notes

Yesterday I attended Ed Tufte’s one day course on Presenting Data and Information. His book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, completely changed the way I think about data. If you love his book, I highly recommend his course. He doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but he puts emphasis on a few things I didn’t pick up on before.

Books by Ed Tufte
His 4 books came with the cost of the course

Key points:

  1. Show causality
  2. Don’t pre-specify the medium of the presentation. Use whatever it takes to show causality.
  3. Annotate linking lines.
  4. Be inspired by maps.
  5. Web design is too influenced by internal hierarchies and ends up being a turf war. Make the interface flat and filled with content.
  6. Your presentations should strive to be as data dense as the sports page.
  7. No zebra stripes in tables.
  8. Most interesting data is multivariate. Supergraphics like Minard’s Napoleon’s March show 6 or more variables.
  9. Progress in most fields is measured by information resolution and throughput. Why are our power point slides limited to 4 or 5 bullets?
  10. Put important analysis and comparison in a common eyespan (no flipping or scrolling)
  11. Be wary of focus groups. Good design is not a democracy.
  12. Start every software project with the interface.
  13. Make the data the interface.
  14. Instead of trickling in data during a presentation, dump a ton of data in their lap, have them read it, and have them cross examine you.

I got to talk to ET himself for a few minutes before the course started about his work on the stimulus bill. I mentioned some work I’ve been doing on making sparklines in HTML 5 and he said to make sure I paid attention to the length and width proportions. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and even convinced PMMI to send Jorge and Paula. So glad I went!

Running Mix for Tomorrow’s Race

Chuck Berry – Maybellene
The Blow – Eat Your Heart Up
Ween – It’s Gonna Be A Long Night
The National – Abel
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood
The Bloodhound Gang – Ralph Wiggum
Beck – Mattress
Neutral Milk Hotel – Holland, 1945
White Stripes – Blue Orchid
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Date With The Night
Pixies – Isla De Encanta