Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Christmas Present to Myself: My New Office  

I've moved my home office from one room of the basement to another.

I know, how boring, but this has given me a much-appreciated chance to completely rip out everything and get rid of the mess and abandoned stuff that I don't really use any more. (Heck, back when I moved into my former office, I was still working for Apple.)

As part of the move, I'm making an effort to make everything as wireless and high-speed as I can.

Upgrades include:

  • Tons of electrical outlets. Spent several days with an electrician to get this all done. 3 drops, each three feet apart, and each drop has 4 outlets above the desk and 4 outlets below the desk. Plus we put a bonus 4-outlet drop on the side. Grand total: 28. Yes, twenty-eight! I'm incredibly happy with the result... you have no idea how much I hate power strips. :-)
  • Clean wired network. I still had some older Cat-5 cables which kept me from getting maximum throughput. Now all hubs are 1Gb Ethernet and cables are Cat-6 or Cat-5e. This should scale up to 10Gb Ethernet when the time comes.
  • Wireless speakers. Specifically, Harman-Kardon SoundSticks II attached to an AirPort Express, driven with iTunes and Airfoil. Yes, I poked fun at AirTunes when it first came out, but it's become surprisingly useful. I do virtually all of my work on a laptop these days, and when I'm in my office I want good sound without having a cable plugged in.
  • AirPort Base Station with simultaneous dual-band. I'm getting a little tired of upgrading base stations, honestly. But since I have a ton of devices on my wireless network, and use it to access other machines on my local net, having 802.11n actually run at 802.11n speed is worth it.
  • WiEx zBoost YX510-PCS-CEL cellular booster. Properly installed with an antenna on the roof, this has given me 5 bars — in the basement, with AT&T. Infinity percent better than what I could get before! Love it!
  • Hawking HBB1 broadband booster. OK, this provides almost no feedback so I'm not actually sure how I'm supposed to measure its effectiveness. But it's cheap, dead simple to set up, and the network feels more responsive with it enabled. With so many wireless devices and no QoS in Apple's AirPort, I figured that having some traffic shaping was better than none.
  • Wall-mounted shelf to hold all the networking gear (DSL modem, base station, cell booster, broadband booster). I prefer to keep things off the desk since (ideally) there should be no need to touch this stuff once it's running. Individual wall mounts are out since the walls are concrete. A simple black shelf from Home Depot did the trick nicely — now everything is elevated and out of the way.

I'm also asking Santa for these extras:

  • Atomic wall clock, because I enjoy having an analog clock around. And once you've had a clock that automatically sets itself from the WWVB atomic time broadcast, you can't go back.
  • Indoor/outdoor thermometer. My new desk is right next to a window, so this is easy. I want one with a wired probe, not wireless, because I prefer it to be reliable and low-maintenance.

(FYI, some of the above are affiliate links. I only ever do that for products that I use myself and that I'm very happy with.)

Removed, and recycled or craigslisted:

  • Several 40' runs of cable that are no longer needed, since my desk is now much closer to where the services come into the house.
  • Three power strips and two extension cords. Yay!
  • Quite a few mystery DC power adapters. Often something like a FireWire hub or USB DVD burner that I used to use and now don't, or a charger for something. I'm not a big gadget freak, but after five years in one place these definitely accumulate. (Seriously, wireless power can't get here fast enough.)
  • Last year's AirPort 802.11n base station. Sigh.
  • An old 32-bit Gateway PC that doesn't meet my needs any more.
  • PowerMac G5 that I no longer use.
  • 2 Cinema Displays with ADC connections. These were really a great investment and they lasted an incredibly long time. But sorry ADC, you're dead, and converting you to DVI is an expensive pain in the ass.
  • Apple DVI to ADC adapter with broken plastic. Huge by modern standards - about the size of a Mac mini.
  • Ancient software and unread books that had piled up on my bookshelf. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that copy of DiskWarrior from 2002 isn't going to do me any good any more.
  • My home server. I used to maintain a web and file server at home. (It was a PowerMac G4, nearly ten years old now.) I didn't derive a huge benefit from it, but most of the time the cost was minimal too — just a constant-but-small amount of maintenance. But over time, I found that periodically it created an enormous amount of trouble and expense when a hard drive failed or I needed to upgrade something. I've realized that there's just no value in my messing around with that stuff any more, so I've switched to offsite hosting and online backup.

I've also ordered some new iMacs for work - to use both as a local distributed build cluster, and for local testing. I'm going to put Windows 7 x64 on one, and the other will have OSX 10.6 running a couple of Linux VMs.

One of the nice side benefits is that moving has really given me a chance to clean up the cabling. Every single cable I've installed so far is neat and tidy, either cut to length or neatly bundled with a cable tie — so everything is tangle-free. I'm sure this will only last right up until I need to reconfigure everything in a hurry for some new task, but it's pretty sweet for now. :-)

Done anything nice for your office lately?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Economics of School Supplies  

I'm interested in economics for one particular reason: incentives are fascinating.

There's the psychology aspect: how can you influence people's behavior? To really do this well you need to understand how people think.

There's the engineering aspect: human society is an enormously complex system, even more complex than the systems we work with in technology today. We can do things to nudge a complex system in one direction or another, but we can't always predict what will happen to it.

And then there are the results: you provide incentives in order to get people to do what you want. And that's a powerful thing! I don't mean this in a cold-blooded way; everybody does this every day of their lives.

Incentives in the Classroom

My wife is a high school teacher, and we had an interesting talk the other day. It was about how she handles providing a classroom supply of extra paper, extra pens, and all that for kids to use when they forget their own.

In years past, she had a system for this. She kept a supply closet, and early in September would give the kids extra credit for bringing in up to two items for the supply closet. Since she did this at the beginning of the year, kids quickly donated all kinds of stuff to get the easy points, and the closet filled up. Before the year had even started she had a year's worth of supplies.

This year, for the first time, she consciously tried not to do that, because she reasoned that it's not really an academic thing — so it wasn't a good idea to give out points for it. Makes sense, right? And besides, the school provides a certain amount of supplies for the teachers which she might be able to use.

But I'm sure you can guess what happened. With almost 200 kids in and out of her classroom each day, all it takes is a few percent each day to need paper and it'll add up fast. So she very quickly ran through her school-provided allotment, and by November, she was bringing in supplies from home to make up the difference.

And thus the dilemma: should she offer extra credit again? Or stick to her principles and not give out points?

Three approaches

As we talked, we came up with basically three approaches to the problem.

  1. Do nothing. This is what she had been doing, and she wasn't really happy with it. The kids could borrow from each other — and some did. Or she could provide her own supplies — which she had started to do. Or kids would just fail the day's assignment when they didn't have the supplies for it... but that's very hard on a public school teacher who wants every kid to succeed.

  2. Positive incentives. This is the extra-credit approach. She had mixed feelings about this at first, until I pointed out that the extra credit was just a tiny fraction of their grade — something like 1% of a single quarter. That isn't going to turn a failing student into a passing one; it might turn a B into a B+, and so on, but that's all. And then she raised the excellent point that roughly 20% (!!) of their grade is class participation anyway. Providing supplies really helps the community of the classroom, just like class participation does, so that's a fine place to apply the extra credit.

  3. Negative incentives. I suggested that another approach would be to penalize the students for coming to class unprepared. Charge kids 1 point (or even just 1/10th of a point) each day that they borrow paper or a pen. The size of the incentive doesn't matter, it just matters that it's negative.

Now, different people will have different feelings about each of these. And you can do different variations on them — charging a penny instead of a point for paper, etc. But those are the basic choices.

Creating an Atmosphere

In practice, both the positive and negative incentives should work. But I pointed out that the main difference between these two is not the first-order results of the incentive ... the main difference is how she will be perceived after applying each one.

Why? Well, even as you incentivize the students with one of these actions, they in turn give you an incentive back with how they react.

If you're the teacher who is chintzy about paper and deducts fractions of points for every little thing, you'll be a Scrooge and the students won't like you. Negative reinforcement yields negative emotions.

But on the other hand, what if you're the teacher who provides extra-credit and then free paper? Why, then you're the wonderfully generous and nice teacher whom they love. Positive reinforcement yields positive emotions.

It's almost Machiavellian: do you want to be feared or loved?

Knowing my wife as I do, in her classroom she works best when she's loved. And so I told her to go back to what she had been doing — give out extra credit to fill up the supply closet. It's funny that after actually dissecting the problem and analyzing it, we came up with the same solution that she'd done more or less instinctively in the first place.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Remembering Apollo 11  

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I hope you're listening to the mission audio, or following the JFK Presidential Library's webcast. The landing itself will be replayed at 4:17pm EDT, and Neil Armstrong's first steps should be at 10:56pm EDT. NASA has been doing a number of things for the occasion, including releasing some very cool photos from orbiters which show the Apollo landing sites as they exist today.

The anniversary is getting a lot of attention this year. It's on magazine covers, it's on TV, and there's an undercurrent of buzz among my geek friends about it.

So I figured I'd take a break from my usual hectic schedule of "not blogging" to share some thoughts.

The first-time cost

Going to the moon was fantastically expensive.

Just think: landing on the moon required an absolutely unparalleled effort. It required the US to bring together technology, manufacturing, research, money, management, a boatload of sciences (psychology, physiology, physics, chemistry, materials, culinary, more), training, politics, leadership, public relations, the military, hard work, and a bottomless amount of determination.

The men who walked on the moon did so at the pinnacle of an enormous pyramid of marshaled resources — virtually the entire resources of a nation, bent to a single purpose. And they did it all with 1960's technology, in a spacecraft that had less computational power than your phone does today. (Heck, probably less than your refrigerator.) This is the stuff of which legends are made.

That pyramid of resources was amazing — and fragile.

We got to the moon and it was pretty freakin' cool. But it wasn't cool enough.

Snapping back

After getting there the first time, we just kind of stopped. The last mission that landed on the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972, just a few short years after the first one.

Why? Well, the moon just wasn't that interesting.

Hang on, I'd like to clarify that. In fact there's a ton of interesting stuff on the moon. But it's probably fair to say the cost of that vast, overreaching pyramid of resources was greater than the return we were getting back.

The truth is that the moon really didn't have anything that 1970's America really needed; no useful minerals, no water, no oil, and we can't even live there. So it makes sense that after briefly overreaching ourselves just to get there, that there would be a period of time where the pendulum swung back: where we'd stop going entirely.

But there is one key thing to remember. It's not 1970 any more.

What a difference 40 years makes

The cost of everything trends downward over time. Or you can put it another way: our civilization gets comparatively wealthier over time, so that a constant cost eventually becomes much more affordable. It doesn't really matter which way you want to look at it, since they're two sides of the same coin.

In the 1960's the cost of putting a man into space — not just the raw materials and rockets, but the entire infrastructure — was so large that it could only be attempted by the world's largest industrial powers.

In the 2000's we've seen the cost fall to the point where it just takes the resources of a single large corporation. In the next two years we should see commercial sub-orbital space travel offered by Virgin Galactic. And you can bet Virgin will have competitors before long.

Space travel isn't quite "cheap", but it's getting surprisingly affordable. It won't be long before we're back at the moon. In fact, I'll go so far as to make a few easy predictions:

A man will walk on the moon again by 2019. That's less than ten years, so on or before the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. NASA has a plan to do it, and so do the Chinese. Barring bureaucratic screwups, another Great Depression, or the singularity, it seems very likely.

A woman will walk on the moon by 2019. The title of "first woman on the moon" is still wide open, and there's no shortage of talented female astronauts. It's an easy bet that the first return mission will include one.

What can the moon offer us now?

Why would we go back, anyway? Science-fiction fans will have no shortage of ideas about the long-term future, but I find it more interesting to consider the short term — because that's really where the rubber meets the road.

What are the realistic, short-term benefits that we might get from the moon when we go back?

A few thoughts:

  • Tourism. We already have space tourism, where rich people pay millions of dollars simply to go into space. Once commercial spaceflight takes off — and Virgin Galactic plans its inaugural flight within just two years — how long do you think it'll be until someone wants a tour of the moon?

  • An outpost. Rather like McMurdo Station in Antarctica, an outpost on the moon would be a center for scientific research and exploration, as well as a central base for other activities.

  • Mining, and ultimately manufacturing. Silicon, aluminum, and iron are probably the most useful and easily-extracted resources in the short term. (Many people talk about Helium-3, but it's not currently exploitable so I'm leaving it off.) But why would we mine the moon for this stuff instead of getting it from Earth? It's useful, but not exceptionally scarce.

    The answer is really that it's about relative scarcity. These raw materials are not exceptionally scarce here on Earth, but they sure are hard to come by up in orbit!

    It's a question of cost again. It's expensive to get things out of the earth's gravity well. If you want something even moderately large on the moon or in space — habitats, satellites, ships, mirrors, radiation shields — it may be cheaper to build it in place, with materials from the moon instead of from Earth.

I'd guess that these things are likely to happen in roughly that order: Tourism first, because there is a huge pent-up demand. This will be followed soon afterward by a small outpost — mostly for research, but also supporting (and partially funded by) tourism. And finally the mining and manufacturing, which can then can be used to build up the outpost even more.

Even though we've gotten used to space travel as a NASA thing, it's possible these may not be governmental projects at all, or they may be hybrid ventures which are part commercial and part subsidized. Either way, the feeling that the pendulum is finally swinging back is terrific. I can't wait!

Now it's your turn. What do you think the moon will have to offer us during the 2020's?