Friday, December 17, 2010

Mental health

I was at a middle school in Bellevue today. It's striking how there are predominantly 2 types of pamphlets on the message board there: those talking about therapists/mental health and those about domestic abuse.
This, in one of the top school districts of the the nation.

Also, check this trend out. This is from all the books scanned by Google written from 1900. It clearly tells us what people are more interested in.

Expected? Or do we take ourselves more seriously than we have to?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Social Q&A Systems

A lot of times you need answers to long or open ended questions. e.g. "How are hiking trail distances calculated?" or "Are there any places where you can watch the 4th of July fireworks over Lake Union while avoiding the crowds? " or "Any good popular science book recommendations?" (all questions which I've had in the past).

Current search engines don't do great for these queries, since they search by keywords aim for speed. But there are a lot of Q&A systems such as Yahoo Answers, Quora etc. out there which are meant to help you with these. Having tried out a few over the past 2-3 years, here is a rundown on them:

Yahoo Answers

Pros: Lots of users, has been around for a long time.

Cons: Not really useful for genuine questions. Funny/not so useful answers tend to be voted up.

Yahoo Answers is a good example of "what doesn’t work".

Twitter/Facebook status messages

Pros: Asks questions to your friends. Decent search capability.

Cons: Asks questions to your friends, which for most people is a limited set of folks with little or no subject expertise.


Pros: Focuses of collaboration. Almost wiki-like

Cons: No user-reputation system makes answering questions less gratifying. New and hence not many users.


Pros: Asks questions to topic experts as determined by their internal algorithms.

Cons: Not as many users. A lot of questions go unanswered. No reputation system.

Facebook Questions

Pros: Lots of users. Uses the social graph information for question discovery.

Cons: No reputation system. Very poor search functionality.

Stack Exchange websites (e.g. StackOverflow)

Pros: Very detailed reputation/badge system which incentivizes people to give good & thorough answers to questions. Decent search functionality.

Cons: Niche set of websites for specific topics like programming, hence not generic. Not many users because of being niche websites.

So based of these experiences, here is what I think will make an ideal Q&A system:

1. Has a lot of active users

2. Has a reputation system which incentivizes good "answerers".

3. Easy to use, via Desktop/Phone/IM.

4. All the questions and answers are well-tagged and easily searchable.

5. Seeks out topic experts for answering questions.

6. Has a social element (people prefer answering questions from their friends instead of random strangers), but does not overdo it (since you might want real experts a lot of times).

Points 2, 3, 4 are achievable design goals for a startup. 1, 5 and 6 are much harder since you need a critical mass of users to achieve them, which would be tough for a startup to achieve. So it has to come from one of the big players. Or a startup bought over by a big player (Aardvark was bought by Google recently). That said, Facebook seems to be best positioned to build such a system if they wish to. Yes, it's Facebook's world, we just live in it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Dark side of the moon

No, this post is not about the awesome Pink Floyd album. It's about the real dark side of the moon. As some of you well know, the moon has a dark side or a "far" side, which constantly faces away from the earth. And a "near" side which constantly faces the earth. In other words, it takes the Moon exactly the same amount of time to rotate around its axis as it does for it to go around the Earth once (~27.322 days). Ever wondered why this happens?

This phenomenon is known as synchronous rotation and it is quite common between planets and their satellites. It is caused due to something known as tidal locking. Just like the moon affects the tides on the earth, the mass and speed of rotation of the earth influences the moon, but in a much larger way (because the earth is much more massive). Early in its life, the moon spun much faster. But slowly, its rotation locked in with its revolution around the earth due to the tidal forces, and we got the "near side" and the "far side". The Wikipedia link above has more info if you are interested in further reading.

Turns out almost all moons in the solar system are tidally locked with their corresponding planets. In fact, Pluto and its moon Charon, are tidally locked with each other i.e. both of them show just one side to other and revolve around each other as if joined with a rod. Astonishing!!!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Natural Selection and Free Markets

Since 4 billion years, life has evolved on this planet by a process called natural selection. Simply put, the individuals and species best adapted to their current surroundings survive and propagate their traits to their offspring, while the other struggle for survival and die out.

I think at some level, the concept of free markets is similar to natural selection. The people or enterprises best suited to the current market conditions survive and thrive. (Note that I am not saying that free market theory = natural selection, but merely that they are similar to some extent). And the one thing we know from our 4 billion year history is that the system works. Give it enough time and space and we might end up with something rich and diverse, like life on planet earth.

Does that mean laissez-faire free markets are the way to go for the various national economies today?

I think this is where we should think about this problem a little bit more. Here are a couple of my thoughts on this.

The first is that natural selection works, but only for the species best adapted to their surroundings. The rest die out. It is estimated that around 99.9% of all the species that ever lived are now extinct. Similarly free markets may not be the kindest to the folks who are least fit to survive in the market: people who are currently unemployed or poor, especially the kids born homeless and poor. Most of us don’t fall in this group, so we might not be the best set of people to decide for them.

Also natural selection kept species interdependent via the food chain i.e. change in the population of one species caused a change in the population of the other species up and down the food chain. This was only true until humans evolved and made all their scientific progresses. Now food can be produced in factories. We don’t need to keep the millions of species around to survive. A parallel can be drawn between invasive species like humans and the big monopolies which are bound to arise in a free market without regulations. A big enough monopoly can take control of the market and bend it to its will. It can kill all the competition exacerbating the problems I mentioned in the paragraph above.

So what’s the best solution if we had the option of choosing one? I’m not sure. Clearly the other extremes (e.g. communism) don’t work either, and have been utter failures wherever employed.

One thing I am fairly confident about is that in the long term, we cannot have a perfect system (economic or otherwise). Perfect systems are a myth. And in spite of the criticisms, I think the current American system is pretty good and ideal results might be achieved by making small incremental changes to it. Obama’s “reforms” might serve as a good experiment to test whether moving to the left of the current system works or not. They might succeed or they might fail, but we will come out wiser on the other side.