Monthly Archives: February 2010



Have I mentioned before how much I love libraries? If there’s a single scene that summarizes me as a person, it’s me walking a couple miles to a library to read about some stuff I don’t need to know.

I love the insider’s view of things. Even if I don’t want to be an insider in a particular field, I really like to immerse myself in their views and language, when I have the time to, rather than sticking to the strictly outsider accounts (popularizations). So a library (especially a university library) is a perfect place for me: it’s mostly full of insider accounts of fields and topics within those fields. If I had to go out and spend $50-$100 per technical book, I wouldn’t be able to frequently dip my nose in a field for a few dozen or few hundred pages and then put it aside again.

I ran across an unexpectedly interesting book in the ISU library today. I did a search for “domain specific language” in the catalog. Since their computing collection is a little slow to catch up to the outside world, they didn’t have any of the several books on domain-specific computer languages published in the last few years. But they did have one on “Domain-specific English”, which turns out to be pretty cool for reasons that I won’t really go into too deeply here. Go find it at your library if you want to know more about that…

There’s a bit in here that was particularly relevant to me:

I remember one winter afternoon, mothers chirping in a corner of the playground as they waited for the bell to announce the schoolday’s end. Their talk focussed on homework – a subject of daily comments – but the conversation sounded more lively than usual. The topic of discussion, and of much stigmatizing, was the reading assignment for that day. Since my own child was in the class, I was aware that the purpose of the assignment had been to encourage children to read for global comprehension and to guess what unfamiliar words could mean. To my surprise, most mothers had missed this point entirely and were indignant. In their opinion, the assignment featured too many difficult words. Some complained about having to consult the dictionary to help clarify the precise meaning of the new words: wasn’t it too early to face such vocabulary? How surprising from an experienced teacher like our maestra!

(And yeah, I know it’s pretty meta to be quoting that in this context.)

I was lucky enough to have parents that would have been among the dissenters in that conversation. They never acted like or told me that some particular text might be ‘too hard’ for me, and they never would have recoiled in shock that some assignment had caused me to use a dictionary. I don’t know that they ever positively subscribed to a pedagogic theory that included the idea of reading for global comprehension and guessing, but the fact that they didn’t discourage it allowed me to develop my own unconscious theory of learning along those lines. If I had to guess, I’d say that children tend to want to explore the world according to those principles, and only discouraging them would stop that short.

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yeah: I had fun at the library today. That’s all.


Another reason that ad-supported == teh suck

This article from ‘MicroISV on a shoestring’ (which is a blog worth keeping up with, if you ask me) has an interesting insight. Patrick says that ad-supported sites are less likely to craft a good user experience, because if the site is better than the ads, the site doesn’t make money. Oversimplified, sure, but it does point out one of the forces at play in the overall dynamic.

I guess that’s a variation on something I’ve been thinking about, that I should get paid for the value I bring, rather than for the value that my advertisers bring. Or my ability to get people to look at little come-ons that give them the perception that there is some value elsewhere, to be more precise.

‘course, setting aside the absurd logic and perverse incentives, I’m glad that somehow ads occasionally work out such that people make good content and also make money from it.


Worked up

Y’ever get worked up about how much you ought to get worked up about something? And then at some point you have to evaluate the inequality about whether the effort of evaluating how much to get worked up, plus the effort of getting worked up itself, is greater or less than the effort of just getting maximally worked up about the original thing from the start. If you know what I mean.


More evidence that ‘shopping is hard’

Huh, I thought shopping for computer-telephony interfaces or scalable web-hosting infrastructure was hard. A little research lately has convinced me that shopping for any sort of insurance must be at least as difficult and probably more.

There is one inherent fact about insurance that seeds the complexity: you’re trying to predict complicated and rare events. The more predictable an event is, actually, the less likely it’s going to be insurable, or insurable at a rate you’re willing to pay. I mean, if you can predict an event with some certainty, you should be using a bank account instead of an insurance policy.

There’s also the psychological twist that these are events that you just plain don’t want to happen. That probably tends to make you undervalue the little information you do have that helps you make your predictions, and causes you to want to just hurry up and get done making the decisions.

On top of all that is, I’m pretty sure, a general tendency for insurance companies to purposely make it harder to buy their products. A great tension exists between the generally communal idea of insurance (we all pool our money together to help whoever needs it) and the capitalist imperative to profit. Basically, insurance companies can only profit to the degree that they hide their actuarial knowledge from their customers.

I was looking at health insurance tonight and was presented with a painful interface to choose a policy. I specified a few parameters in very general terms, and they presented me with dozens of possible policies to choose from, with a ‘comparison’ feature that did little to enlighten me about the differences. It kind of reminds me of that game Black Box where you’re trying to discern what’s in the box by shooting a tiny number of rays into the darkness, though this particular game of black box is probably 80-dimensional instead of 2D. My choices would still not be easy even if I had a full view of the model(s) they use to design these policies, but…