Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Quick links

Some of what has caught my attention lately:
  • Pump and dump, both at the Facebook and Groupon IPOs. ([1] [2])

  • "The thrilling demise of Groupon's crummy business model" ([1] [2])

  • Dave McClure says, "Returns for venture capital 'absolutely suck' ... even worse ... most VCs are 'insufferable, arrogant, fucking assholes'." ([1])

  • And good advice here, also from Dave McClure: "Don't do a startup, you idiot!" ([1])

  • Remember all the startups in desktop search a few years ago? They all disappeared when Microsoft fixed desktop search in Windows. Likewise, cloud storage is increasingly becoming part of the operating system (in MacOS, Windows, and Ubuntu), and that likely will kill off startups like Dropbox. ([1] [2])

  • This is the end of the customizable home page hype, also a popular startup idea a few years ago ([1])

  • "Once valued at more than $160 million, [Digg] is selling for the deeply discounted price of about $500,000" ([1])

  • I wonder why we don't see engineers leave en masse for another company. Lack of organization? Fear of being sued?([1])

  • After saying "Windows 8 is terrible for desktops", a reviewer goes on to predict, "Windows 7, with its 630 million licenses sold, will remain an incredibly popular OS for the next 10 years -- just like Windows XP." ([1] [2] [3])

  • WinXP amazingly still has 26% market share but, in a bizarre twist on top of that, Microsoft decided not to support IE9 on WinXP; WinXP users have to use Chrome or Firefox if they want a modern browser. ([1] [2])

  • Brutal (and long) Vanity Fair article on Microsoft. To summarize, stack ranking and Ballmer's repeated errors killed confidence, morale, and the company's performance in the last decade. This quote captures the dysfunction: "People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn't get ahead of me on the rankings." ([1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

  • Microsoft has a decent phone out now, but it's priced so high, no one sees the point of getting it. You can't have a product consumers see as inferior to an Apple product but charge Apple-level prices, people will just get the Apple product. ([1] [2])

  • Others had the same idea as the iPhone, just no one but Apple was willing to piss off the carriers and partners and launch it ([1])

  • A change that may have widespread impact, current smartphones are getting powerful enough that people are waiting longer before replacing them; they're happy with what they already have. A similar thing happened a while ago with PCs, with dramatic impact on that industry, could be just starting for smartphones. ([1])

  • Of course you can sacrifice customer service in the short-term to boost short-term profitability. Customers take a while to learn that the service is not what it once was; you're essentially drawing down from past investment in your brand. After a few years, your brand becomes soiled, retention rates fall, customer acquisition costs rise, and profitability plummets. This has happened many times in the past, and is happening again right now. ([1] [2] [3])

  • A hybrid recommender, using both content and behavior data, wins A/B tests on Forbes.com articles. Why does that sound familiar (cough, Findory, cough)? ([1] [2])

  • Cute idea, default local search results not to where you are, but where you are likely going, based on your current trajectory ([1])

  • Nice example of how better hardware in your database can be faster and cheaper than expanding your caching layer ([1])

  • What we introverts have to go through to act like extroverts ([1])

  • If you have ever worked with software engineers and thought, "Why are they so grumpy?", this article provides insight, understanding, and solutions. ([1])

  • Long article from Steve Yegge, but with some thought-provoking points about liberal (risk embracing) and conservative (risk avoiding) programmers. ([1])

  • A start on personalized education, recommendations for courses ([1])

  • An interesting difference between Coursera and Udacity is that Udacity is sticking mostly to computer science. I think Udacity is right to do so, but also curious how well Coursera manages to do in fields outside of CS. ([1])

  • Love DragonBox, a game that is primarily a fun puzzle game, but also teaches algebra. The math is subtle; the puzzles involve matching and moving things on two sides of the screen that, as it turns out, represent two sides of the equation and all your moves are the same as moving things between two sides of an equation. Great for kids, really fun and addictive to play, love this, more like this please. ([1] [2])

  • Nice example of A/B testing in the physical world ([1])

  • Google App Engine launched at the top of the stack (write code and don't know where or how it is running) and Amazon EC2 at the bottom (just providing virtual machines). It's been interesting to watch both of them move toward each other, Amazon launching more and more features on top of EC2 (like CloudFront and Elastic MapReduce) and Google launching lower level services (like this new move to allow you to run your own virtual machine in Google's cloud). ([1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7])

  • Why read research papers? "These papers often foreshadow where the rest of the world is going." ([1])

  • I like this search quality metric, WTF! @ k. Colorfully useful. ([1])

  • Google Research and their hybrid research model blends research and engineering (to maximize impact and avoid the problematic tech transfer from research) and keeps projects short (but still do long-term research by iterating). ([1])

  • Cow Clicker is a very amusing (and bizarrely successful) deconstructive satire of Zynga games, reduced to just clicking, waiting, and buying your way out of waiting, hilarious. Also worth seeing is Nekogames' Parameters, which breaks down Diablo-like games to their core elements. ([1] [2] [3])

  • NNet guru Geoffrey Hinton says, "The brain is confronted by a buzzing, blooming confusion. It needs to fit many different models and use wisdom of the crowds." He then goes on to show the surprising benefits of massive NNets that drop out hidden units randomly. ([1] [2])

  • "We oversimplify because, simply, there is no other way of getting by in the world" ([1])

  • "It's not that our memory is a glitchy wetware version of computer flash memory; it’s that the computer metaphor just doesn't apply ... We store only bits and pieces of what happened—a smattering of impressions we weave together into feels like a seamless narrative. When we retrieve a memory, we also rewrite it, so that the time next we go to remember it, we don't retrieve the original memory but the last one we recollected." ([1])

  • Amazing technology, a camera fast enough to catch light moving, can see around corners using clever algorithms, well worth watching this short talk ([1])

  • Another amazing technology, very clever algorithms allowing an autonomous plate to fly at high speed in a constrained space. Go robots! Well worth watching this too, also short. ([1])

  • Yet another impressive video, worth watching. Simple idea that breaks an assumption, solves a long standing problem with robot grippers, very effective, clever. ([1])

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The computer scientist CEO

Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo may be a test of a new style of executive leadership, the optimizing CEO.

She is not the first computer scientist to lead a major company, but she is the first computer scientist (MSCS or higher) hired in as CEO to a Fortune 500 company. Many computer scientists view everything as an optimization problem. People, work, politics, life, everything is a search (often of a dynamic space) to find a maximum near the global maximum.

Marissa Mayer is an important test of a new style of CEO. She is not a Neutron Jack or Carly Fiorina, the strong military general style of bold decisions, loyalty-first, follow me, right or wrong. She is not going to be a charismatic cheerleading, press-focused CEO, the type that views their job solely as managing the message and marketing and selling the company and themselves. She is not going to be the mad visionary of Steve Jobs, yelling at everyone while single-handedly designing breakthrough products. She is a computer scientist and appears to be leading like one. I suspect she views the company, people at the company, the products, even her own role, all as an optimization process, a search to find the most productive and most useful outcomes.

The most common degree of CEOs hired into Fortune 500 companies is an MBA. Marissa appears to be the first computer scientist. This may be a test of a new style of leadership. Will Marissa Mayer be the start of companies hiring optimizing CEOs?