The Other End of Sunset

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sunny, Rainy, Cloudy

It takes you in,
and spits you out
--Peter Murphy
Remarkably enough, I am not on a plane at the moment. I just got off a plane, but am not, in fact, sitting on one now.

I'm in the Bay Area -- it's not raining today, which is nice, but it's much colder than I'm used to. Yes, yes, for those of you in real cold climates, 50 Fahrenheit is not cold. But I'm from LA. It's cold to me.

I'm sitting in a breakfast place, listening to all the deal negotiations around me. I'm always astonished by what people are willing to say publicly. I know the valuation that one of the Sand Hill crowd is offering a small tech company. I know the price of the deal that a hardware company is offering their newest client, and that the client overpaid by a lot.

And here I sit, typing away, talking to you. I guess I, too, am talking in public, but it feels somehow more private.

Ironic, isn't it.

Palms sweat, blackjack
On a Saturday night
--Sheryl Crow

Speaking of irony. I flew Virgin America over the holidays, I can't remember where I was going. The cool thing about Virgin America is that they offer wifi during the flight -- which means that I can work through the entire flight. I know, that sounds like torture (after all, flights were our last bastion of magazine reading), but actually it's very useful for me. I turn on my music -- with my custom earphones that cut 25 decibels of exterior sound making the flight almost silent -- and write.

I don't have one of those security screens on my laptop, so I assume that everyone around me can read what I'm writing. Thus, I don't write very sensitive stuff. But there's loads of work I can do, catch up on, and the like. So, the wifi is really great for me.

At least on the flight I took, Google was sponsoring the wifi. It might have been part of Google's "free wifi for the holidays" thing, I don't know. At any rate, you had to do various things to get access to the wifi.

As part of the process, you had to give an email address. I hate giving email addresses to places I don't want to hear from later, and so many places assume you want to get their spam in the future (and make it difficult -- or more difficult than it should be -- to stop the flow).

I don't want to collect many different email addresses simply to accumulate spam -- I don't want to remember that many user id and password combinations. GMail has a really cool feature that I use often: You can use a "+" in your email address. The stuff after the plus sign is ignored by GMail, so the mail gets sent to the address before the plus sign, but you get the stuff after the plus sign in the mail you receive.

For example, if your email address is "", you can give someone (say, in a comment to "". The mail will go to you at "". However, you can use a filter within your "" account to automatically do something with mails that include the "otherend" tag after the plus. You could filter all mails with "+otherend" into the trash, for example.

I wanted to use a + in my Virgin America email address -- specifically, I wanted to use -- so I could filter future Virgin emails into the trash.

However, this email, sponsored by Google, didn't allow the "+" as a valid email address. The code they had to verify the email address failed because a + is not a letter or digit. Apparently, + is not a valid character for an address. But it is. But I couldn't use it. Aargh. More spam.

If you write code to validate email addresses, include the +, please. But you shouldn't write that code, there are loads of modules out there in the wild that you can use to do the validation (and to validate other user input). Use one of them, it's smarter.

And hope that THEY allow the plus sign.


There must be rock
beneath the sand
--Nanci Griffith

Many years ago, I was asked to teach one of those weird cross-disciplinary classes at a liberal arts college. As it turned out, I left before I could actually teach the class, but I was thinking about it the other day.

I have no idea what made me think of it. However, since I did think about it, in my usual dcm-brain-random-walk method, I'm going to write about it here.

The class was targeted at first year college students, and was thematic instead of subject area based. I have always been interested in the overlap between psychology, sociology, and history; the three work together to constrain what we can do, how we can do it, and how we view ourselves.

So, I decided to teach on the theme of "views of self", and talk about how history and society shape our views. The fun part of my classes was always the weird stuff I assigned to read. I assigned medical journal articles to my statistics classes. This follows the AA saying "Everyone is a role model; some people are models of what not to do". Medical journals are rife with bad statistics -- see below for more light and heat on this point. In my software engineering courses, I often assigned Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" to talk about the broader impact of what we build -- and no, I don't like her views on life, I just think we should all read something we hate regularly.

I'm a civil libertarian. I believe you should get to say whatever you want, and I should defend your right to do so. Even when I hate what you say. But I digress.

In this case, I wanted to cast light on how our views of self, within society, developed. I thought it'd be fun to recreate my reading list here.

// Note: I'm now going to write in the past tense, not the past subjunctive tense, even though the class never happened. It's shorter to use the past tense, and much easier to read. It's just not true, sorry about the misleading prose. //

I assigned Plato's Republic ( What should a "perfect society" look like. Then, I assigned Brave New World ( Perfect sometimes stinks.

I assigned Emile ( You can learn on your own to be what you want. Then, I assigned Stranger in a Strange Land ( Maybe it's not your choice after all.

I assigned The Covenant ( Your history changes your view of what's right. Then, I assigned The Stand ( Your present changes your view of what will be right.

I assigned A Room of One's Own ( Society constrains your actions, and political and economic power is key to transcending. Then, I assigned "Women want bread, not the vote" (an essay reprinted lots of places, e.g., Because sometimes economic parity transcends anything else.

I assigned The Communist Manifesto ( Society is uniquely determined by economics. Then, I assigned Politics and Markets, which sadly seems to be out of print ( Maybe society and economic structures work together to specify your life.

And finally, I assigned One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ( Maybe your view of self doesn't really matter.

If I were offering the class now, I'd include Another Day of Life ( Sometimes our view of other societies is fundamentally flawed because of our hidden assumptions. Thanks to Kevin Delaney for telling me about this book -- it's most excellent, I highly recommend it.

Overall, I wanted the class to be hard and interesting. Of course, this weird reading list, now that I look at it, would probably have yielded an awful course. And likely somewhat depressing. I wish I had gotten to teach it, I think it would have been really fun to hear the thoughts and perceptions of a much younger group with a different set of experiences than I had, and a different worldview than mine.

Oh well.

I know you don't owe me,
but I wish you would let me,
ask one favor of you!
--Lynyrd Skynyrd

I'm interviewed in the January Southwest Spirit magazine -- you know, the magazine that gets stuffed into the seats on the plane for each Southwest Airlines flight. The Q&A was around "digital decluttering", which is advertising-speak for "how to organize your digital life". It's based on my book, not surprisingly, mostly on the "Stuff We Love" appendix. Sadly, they didn't include the title of my book. I doubt anyone will look on Amazon for my name as a book reference.

By the time this gets posted, the issue won't be in seat pockets anymore, so I'm not self-advertising.

But I was flying into SJC the other day, while my article was still in the magazine on the plane. The guy across the aisle from me opened his magazine to skim through while we were taxiing. He flipped through the first half of the issue, until he got to my article.

He stopped and read my article very carefully. Although he didn't rip it out, he read it very carefully. I was practically dancing in the aisle (although the seatbelt sign was on, so I'd have gotten in trouble, but you get the idea).

My self-enthusiasm dimmed somewhat when he flipped to a full-page ad about Amish mantlepieces for only $59 and read that ad just as carefully.

Oh well. Maybe other people ripped the article out?

Cause I'm waiting by the phone
Waiting for you to call me up and tell me I'm not alone
--Soul Asylum

I go through phases where I see JR everywhere. I see the little pointed face. I see her shy smile and the way she ducked her head to hide her smile. I see her short blonde hair, and her omnipresent suits (with pants, rarely skirts). I see her wide open, guileless eyes.

I'm in one of those phases now. She was on my flight. She was at the stoplight next to me on Hollywood Boulevard yesterday. She was at my coffee shop/meeting place.

And I have mixed feelings. One the one hand, it's great to "see" her. On the other hand, it feels like someone punched me. Notice no quotes around "punched". There's no imagination, sadly, in that feeling.

These phases aren't correlated with SL traveling, but they are worse when she's not around. I come home and tell her about it, and how I'm feeling. She listens patiently, smiles at me, and gives me a hug. Before Minnie died, she used to climb up in my lap, as if she knew I was sad.

But Minnie is gone too, and I'm traveling. So the feeling is more of the punch type than the great one. But it's still somewhat comforting, and I try to focus on that.

mon amour
--JayZ, Rihanna, Bono, the Edge, and a stage full of others

I was going to write a long passage on a mind-numbing example of bad math inferencing, and/or terrible reporting (here:, but Cory Ondrejka already did a good job of it. So, I'll write a shorter annoyed piece.

Basically, the core work was a study of the schools that entrepreneurs attended. The study examined a common perception (in tech companies, at least) that the best entrepreneurs all came from top tier schools -- the Ivy League, Stanford, IIT, etc. The study carefully analyzed startups, identifying 287 schools in the sample. Clearly, there are more schools represented than simply the top 10.

Which isn't a terrible surprise, given geographical impact on school attendance, and the fact that (in general), the top few percent of students at almost any school are competitive with the students in the "best schools". In other words, the very best students at a bad university might have succeeded at places like Stanford, but didn't attend such schools, for a variety of reasons. (There's data on this, although there are lots of reasons why the data is messy.)

Now, opinions may vary, but I'm reasonably smart. I attended the University of Tulsa, and wasn't at the top of my class there. In a blatant example of the representativeness heuristic, I think that I'm an example of strong students at bad universities. SL attended Washington State, which is best known for making the Playboy best party school list year after year. The Lawyer went to the University of Florida; enough said thereā€¦

OK, ignoring that side trip I just took us on, back to the core research. The top-line summary of the research was that the school you attended didn't matter in making a startup -- look, there were 287 schools represented!

But that's wrong. Let's review...

The paper found that the top 10 schools accounted for "only" 19% of all startups. Hmm, let's think that through. There were 287 schools in the sample. So, 277 schools amounted for 81% of all startups (100% - 19%). This is massive over-indexing of the top 10 schools -- there are more startups from the top 10 than there "should be" if there's no difference between schools.

So, doing the math, if the top 10 schools amounted to 19%, then each top 10 school accounted for 1.9% of all startups.

And if the remaining 277 schools accounted for the remaining 81% of schools, each of those schools provided about 0.3% of startups.

Thus, each top 10 school amounted for roughly 6 times as many startups as each of the remaining schools.

That's a huge difference.

It doesn't say that all startups are from top tier schools, but it's clearly a leg up for some reason. You may argue why it happens -- surrounding industries, applied research by professors, technology transfer departments, higher student caliber on average, or any of a thousand other reasons -- but there are numerical advantages to being a top tier school.

But I've done reasonably well for myself, and I didn't attend a top tier school as an undergraduate.

// But I did attend Princeton for my Ph.D., so maybe I don't count. The Lawyer went to Boalt Hall law school at UC Berkeley. Whatever. SL is still an example of a huge success from a state school. //

The findings were interesting, the research was a great question, and the lack of statistical understanding represented by the article (and the coverage) is maddening. Really, folks, take some introductory math and dig into the numbers at least a little bit.

Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
--The Beatles


  • To be more pedantic on the math and stats, more importantly than the number of schools, should be the number of students who attended those schools in a given timeframe.

    I am not too familiar with the US college system but I can imagine that some schools have more students than others in a given program. And in the end it is the students that actually make the startups not the schools.

    Also of course time must be considered.

    Other disclaimer: I have not read the research you rip apart. So maybe it was in there...

    By Blogger Robert Hasson, at 11:22 PM  

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