Venkatesh Rao on Big Data, Machine Learning, and Blockchains

Venkatesh Rao had a good take on the big data/machine learning/blockchain mania in Breaking Smart a few weeks ago:

Many people, database experts among them, dismiss Big Data as a fad that’s already come and gone, and argue that it was a meaningless term, and that relational databases can do everything NoSQL databases can. That’s not the point! The point of Big Data, pointed out by George Dyson, is that computing undergoes a fundamental phase shift when it crosses the Big Data threshold: when it is cheaper to store data than to decide what to do with it. The point of Big Data technologies is not to perversely use less powerful database paradigms, but to defer decision-making about data — how to model, structure, process, and analyze it — to when (and if) you need to, using the simplest storage technology that will do the job.A organization that chooses to store all its raw data, developing an eidetic corporate historical memory so to speak, creates informational potential and invests in its own future wisdom.

Next, there is machine learning. Here the connection is obvious. The more you have access to massive amounts of stored data, the more you can apply deep learning techniques to it (they really only work at sufficiently massive data scales) to extract more of the possible value represented by the information. I’m not quite sure what a literal Maxwell’s Historian might do with its history of stored molecule velocities, but I can think of plenty of ways to use more practical historical data.

And finally, there are blockchains. Again, database curmudgeons (what is it about these guys??) complain that distributed databases can do everything blockchains can, more cheaply, and that blockchains are just really awful, low-capacity, expensive distributed databases (pro-tip, anytime a curmudgeon makes an “X is just Y” statement, you should assume by default that the(X-Y) differences they are ignoring are the whole point of X). As with Big Data, they are missing the point. The essential feature of blockchains is not that they can poorly and expensively mimic the capabilities of distributed databases, but do so in a near-trustless decentralized way, with strong irreversibility and immutability properties.

Building a Wide Base of Knowledge

Someone I’m advising asked me this morning how to build a wide base of knowledge across many subjects and disciplines. Here was my answer:

The short answer is that you need to be curious. Specifically:

  1. Read widely.
  2. Ask people what they are working on and dig in to understand. Ask lots of questions. Spend lots of time listening.
  3. Work on your memory. If your memory isn't that great, take lots of searchable notes.
  4. Build good relationships with people who you can ask about things.
  5. Build up mental models: Conceptual understandings of how things are structured and work.

That was a good keynote. Makes me excited about Apple’s future again. I’m preordering a 10.5″ iPad Pro. I’ve been waiting a full year for an update to the line and this looks incredible.

A Prediction for the 2020 Election

I think that the 2020 presidential election will finally be when we’ll see colors other than red, white, and blue showing up as main branding colors in a mainstream candidate. 

The 2016 election and people’s response to Trump paved the way for “outsiders” and given people permission to color outside the lines. 

I’d love for that to lead to a fracturing of the two party system into dozens of smaller parties, but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. We’ll have to settle for more exciting campaign branding. Baby steps. 

How to Avoid Pastoralism

I’m rereading Breaking Smart Season 1 right now and I got to thinking about Rao’s concept of pastoralism vs prometheanism and how to avoid it. 

Whenever you find yourself pining for a specific technological solution, especially one that was dreamt up more than 15 years ago, ask yourself whether or not you want the actual specified solution or to solve the problem which the thing you pine for was supposed to solve. 

If it is the later, you should work on a new solution that takes into account the changed social and economic situation in the time that has elapsed and what is now technically possible that wasn’t before.

Don’t keep working toward a technically difficult, but outdated, solution just for nostalgia’s sake. Question your motives and work toward solving the problem again. 

Focused vs Unfocused Reading

  1. The gap between focused and unfocused reading is huge, especially when compounded over time. 
  2. Reducing distractions can lead to huge improvements in the number of pages read and understood. Maybe even more than traditional speed reading methods. 
  3. On my flight to Chicago this weekend, I read half of James Hogan’s Inherit the Stars. On the flight back to NYC, I reread 60% of Breaking Smart Season 1. Each leg was a little over 2 hours. I got through much more of each of these books than I have in equivalent amounts of time at home. It was like I had tunnel vision on the flight because I couldn’t get up and had no distractions available. 
  4. I need to do a better job at implementing airplane-like focus at home so that I can cover more ground in less time. I’m going though the 10 Days to Faster Reading book right now, but its methods aren’t that appealing to me. Working on my focus might be a better route. 

Ted Kooser on Writer’s Block

Writing Routines, a great new sites that gives behind-the-scenes look at the daily habits of writers and authors, has an interview with Ted Kooser, a former US Poet Laureate. I love his answer to a question on writer’s block:

William Stafford, one of our great poets, said that the best thing to do about writer’s block is to lower your standards, and it’s the best advice to give someone who’s stalled.

Ideas for WordPress Projects

A la James Altucher’s Ten Ideas a Day

  1. Implementing microformats into a theme
  2. Make a Timeline Builder plugin
  3. Make a book review custom post type and template
  4. Export WordPress posts and import them into Day One
  5. Tutorials explaining typical WordPress structure
  6. Persistent to-do list posts
  7. Plugin or custom post type for documenting learning
  8. Reduce database calls with hardcoding things that won’t change in your own child theme
  9. Create defaults and new widgets for WPBakery’s Visual Composer
  10. Interact with WordPress via the REST API. Visualize posts with D3?

JavaScript Learning Project Ideas

A la James Altucher’s Ten Ideas a Day

  1. Daily quote feature with quotes from the Leonard Read Almanac. 
  2. Build a searchable page to go along with the almanac. Realtime search by date and topic. 
  3. Musicfor.work – take people’s Spotify inputs, sanitize, save, and display. Basic first, categories later. 
  4. Cocktail visualizations 
  5. Page that shows window width, window height, resolution, etc. 
  6. Header title typewriter 
  7. More Sol LeWitt art
  8. Interactive scrolling articles a la Pudding.cool
  9. Pre-made chart template with an online data editor
  10. Common features of JS explained and real examples of use
  11. D3.js snippet and/or boilerplate collection 
  12. What seeds to plant based on time of year and location
  13. National park photo map pulling in from Instagram
  14. Book filtering for my blog’s book notes
  15. Evernote lite: Collections of editable notes if logged in, viewable but not editable if not logged in. 

Good test for determining whether or not I’m actually hungry: Would I eat a carrot right now? If not, I’m probably just craving something sweet and I should drink some water instead.

I’ve been feeling stuck with some creative issues at work and decided to try a new tactic today: 

  • I spent 30 minutes digging into what specifically I was stuck on instead of just the general “I’m Stuck.” 
  • I picked one of the items on that list and turned it into a question. 
  • I wrote that question down and repeated it in my head a few times. Then I grabbed my notebook and a pen and went for a walk. 
  • I thought about the question while I walked and stopped along the way to write down what I was thinking. The ideas started flowing and I got a whole notebook page down about that particular question. 

I go for a walk every day, but I usually listen to a podcast instead of using it to focus on a particular question. Defining the question beforehand and leaving my headphones at home allowed me to focus without my mind turning to whatever the podcast was about. 

Great stuff on marketing from my coworker Derek Magill:

“Hold off on new marketing efforts and let’s fix your funnel first.” Oftentimes the most promising “marketing” strategy is not to focus on growing awareness and traffic, but in making the most of the existing awareness and traffic you already have.

Read his full post here. Scroll down to May 5: Awareness vs Activation.

Ignore the Rules and Be True to Yourself

“Writers write every single day.” “If you aren’t writing code every day, you can’t call yourself a developer.” “The best in every field get up at 4am and start working by 6am after a workout and an hour of reading.”

Rules are so fun to state. They make you look hardcore, driven, and disciplined. But if you are on the other side of that exchange and are the one hearing those rules, ignore them.

Seriously, fuck those rules.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing about people’s processes. I love reading books like Daily Rituals. But you won’t get anywhere by worrying about following someone else’s process. You have to figure out with works for you and be ruthless in following it.

I personally see a lot of benefits of showing up and doing things daily. I don’t wait for inspiration to find me, I spend time consuming great stuff and thinking about it. I’ve recognized that I need space to think, walk, read, and listen. Inspiration always comes, and when it does, I’m ready.

That said, I don’t stress out too much over it. While I do get stuff done every day, that isn’t necessarily when my best work hits me. Sometimes I’ll have weeks where I get tons of ideas and am excited to work on some cool stuff. For example, I had the idea to build this WordPress theme this week. This is the first full WordPress theme I’ve done all on my own. I couldn’t get it out of my head until I got the templates done and shipped it. My Jekyll blog template was the same way last year. So was the Sol LeWitt project, the Slack Toggl slash command, the Apple Photos analysis project, and the Cocktail library.

Other times I’ll go a few weeks without being moved to do anything beyond the daily tasks I’ve set for myself. I’ve learned to be okay with that. Fuck what works for other people. These are my projects.

What I can never forgive myself for, though, is not doing the work when I feel the call.

Not following the traditional rules is totally fine. What is inexcusable is not staying true to your own terms and getting your work done.