Mar 102014
 

Cryptocurrency could’ve remained a theoretical exercise if it weren’t for the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, who was outed by Newsweek this week. The man allegedly behind Bitcoin had “a career shrouded in secrecy, having done classified work for major corporations and the U.S. military.” Whatever that means, and whether or not the face that has been linked with the name is the correct one, Bitcoin took a rather peculiar and big cat out of the bag.

Whatever you happen to think of the inventor, or inventors, of Bitcoin, which started a something of a revolution in economics similar to what the internet did to a couple of decades ago to information and publishing, and whatever you think of Bitcoin as an alternative currency, I hope to show that digital currency as a technology is separate and distinct from the economy and process of producing it. Let me state clearly from the outset that I don’t find digital currency as harmful as-such, rather that Bitcoin and the other breed of clones are extremely inefficient and wasteful. They could achieve, I argue, the same goals by being far more useful and valuable to society at large.

Bitcoins

We can agree that Bitcoin started something that will be hard to stop, if not impossible. This to me speaks of a demand for what Bitcoin has to offer. While some governments and media outlets tend to put the emphasis on illegal use of digital currencies, technically savvy users see it as efficient way of transferring funds, other users see it as a means to be independent from centralized power and a perfect candidate for a global currency. The efficiency of transferring digital currencies comes from lower transaction fees, but mostly because transferring them are done electronically and not physically. Anonymity, which is only partial, is also a highly sought trait in trade as it gives a sense of security and reduced risk, whether real or perceived.

The Other Side of the Coin

My objection to Bitcoin is not in the technology, nor its use. Put simply, everything has a cost, and the cost of the current crop of cryptocurrencies is rather high to society at large. I’m certainly not the first to notice this inefficiency and some tried to find ways to recoup the cost.

Those of us who have been planning on buying new video cards, a.k.a. GPU, are bitterly aware of the disproportionately high prices of the last generation of AMD cards. Back in December when these Radeon were in obvious shortage Litecoin mining was blamed. AMD improved its supplies of the highly demanded cards, but prices remain high. Eventually miners too had take note too.

There are many other uses to a GPU, besides the obvious mining and gaming, not least scientific and medical research, computer aided simulation, modeling and for finding drugs to cure deadly diseases among other promising and necessary projects. It is this latter group that is harmed by the high prices. And those were only the GPU-intensive projects. At this point CPUs are too slow to cost less in electricity than the potential coin value they mine, but of the projects that could use those CPU cycles are climate simulation and prediction, mind modeling, protein docking, and solar panel optimization to produce clean energy. And I’m leaving out many other HIV, cancer and other drug research projects.

To add insult to injury, not only is the high price of GPUs is reducing the potential number of participants on projects that have a chance of improving human life and prosperity, but they also don’t produce anything that benefits anyone other than the miner.

globe-home

But that’s not all. Cryptocurrency mining is a double whammy. The energy spent mining is energy wasted. On an individual level one might think there isn’t much difference between playing a game and mining. After all both use the same GPU and will consume the same electricity (per unit time,) which the owner is happy to pay for. However, unlike gaming, or more useful activities as mentioned above, mining has no entertainment value, doesn’t pay game developers that produce the games, doesn’t help us socialize as multiplayer games do, and do not have any hope of teaching us any skills that games might be argued to do. While I may lust over a multi-GPU gaming rig someone spent thousands to ramp up their frame-rate to run folding and similar projects on them when not playing, serious miners run farms of such rigs 24/7 to create money out of whatever their local power-station consumes to supply them with the juice that runs their cutting edge machines.

This isn’t unlike getting paid to produce soot. Or to pay power-stations to produce soot for you. Certainly we can do better and reverse the state of affair on its head: instead of burning away to mine coins, we can solve useful problems to mine coins. After all, digital coins are an arbitrary currency, and as I’ll show below, as long as we can secure it from attackers, what how many coins the work miner do produce and of what value a coin is, are completely up to us.

Before going further, let me state my point as clearly and tersely as I can: Regardless of how our personal ventures are paid for, there are very few investments that can rival the return on investment in scientific and medical research that will benefit the next generation, if not us directly, and we could still have digital currencies.

Economics 101

Traditional economics works by creating “value.” Suppose you have $100 million that you aren’t using at the moment. You can lend it to someone who has an idea for a project. They can do two types of things with it from an economics perspective: one possibility is to spend it all on hiring people to dig the biggest man-made ditch in the middle of nowhere, or, they can pay research centers that work on finding a new technology or a cure for a deadly disease. Of course there are countless other choices, and they don’t come in two colors either, they could use the money to build the next Google or Apple and create innovative products and millions of jobs. The point is that of all possible ventures and shades of black, there are those that go nowhere and do no good to anyone (except perhaps for feeding the workers and their families for the duration of the project, or until they commit suicide) and those that continue to serve most of society long after the project is over.

Any sound economic system should provide an incentive to the individual such that—to paraphrase Adam Smith—through self-interest participants inadvertently do more good to society by seeking to maximize personal gains. In my example above, the lender will be a fool for parting with his or her hard-earned money before first doing due diligence on how the funds will be spent. Yet, if everyone hoards their income and never lend out, society will need to constantly create more and more goods from some source that doesn’t require initial investment to match the growing demand. Clearly an unsustainable proposition. It is therefore in our interest to invest in fruitful projects. But, as I tried to show through my caricature of an example, the investment should pay us, both investors and society at large, more than it spends. Otherwise, eventually the economic cycle will slow down and come to a halt. This is exactly what happens in recession: investors lose confidence that they will get back their investments, so stop lending out.

If we could playback time and be in a position where we had a chance to invest in electronics in the ’50s and ’60s, to ultimately discover the transistor and then integrated circuits which made all of modern electronics, and not least computers, possible, such an investment would clearly have benefited investors and society. Similarly, if Dr. Jonas Salk had asked me for donations to buy equipment or even pay himself and his staff salary for his work on the polio vaccine, no awards will be given to me if instead I had decided to buy ice-cream to school children with the money, albeit arguably a reasonably good cause.

Granted, my examples are flawed: We don’t know in advance that Dr. Salk will succeed in producing vaccination for a disease that still stands without cure to-date and had infected as much as 350,000 children a year in 1988. In reality there would be many others working on similar vaccines and cures than just the one we know was successful post-factum. However, and this is my point, donating to any one of the researchers would be a much better long term investment to the very same children who received my free ice-cream.

Bitcoin Economics

To go back to digital currencies and economics, suppose I offer you 50c for smoking a cigarette. If you’re already a smoker, you might just ignore my joke or bother to take my money. If you’re not a smoker, I’m sure my offer will not convince you to start smoking. However if I were to make the offer indefinite, even a non-smoker might be tempted to do the math and find out that if they smoke 30 a day, they can make almost $5500 annually for the effort of a few minutes a day, and that can go even higher the more they smoke. I’m fairly certain that this offer, whether it comes from cigarette producers who are willing to pay for promotional purposes or otherwise, will have had a resonance as recent as a few decades ago when the harms of smoking were still unknown, if something very similar hasn’t been attempted already, which wouldn’t surprise me personally. In fact we should expect many people in poor conditions, who are either ignorant of the harms of smoking, or think it’s a lost cause to preserve their vanishing health anyway, might be tempted to take the offer.

Bitcoin does something very similar although in a different way. The offer is the following: participants in Bitcoin mining are rewarded for doing some work with a unique string of bits that they can use to trade with someone who’s willing to accept it in return of something of value, including goods, services, and of course cash. The inventor of Bitcoin made it easier to do said work than to counterfeit the “coins” (which are really just long numbers). (This is very important because if I were to offer you some product (or banknote) that people fake easily, you should immediately realize that you will have a hard time getting back what you paid for the original when everyone pays less for the fake.)

Unlike an employer, Bitcoin isn’t offering a work which has a purpose that is beyond our comprehension or need-to-know. The work Bitcoin is offering the reward for is completely arbitrary and, I argue, harmful to everyone, both participants and bystanders. Essentially, Bitcoin, and all cryptocurrencies to date, are offering a reward for finding a certain color and shaped grain of sand in the desert. They have designated sand hills to mine and the total number of said grains to be discovered. The value of the each grain is determined by the market and demand. And apparently there is a significant demand for them in markets that either want to be independent of the current monetary system, or, they like the efficiency of passing the grains around, once they find or buy them that is.

500 volunteers shoveling to move a dune in Lima from its original position.

500 volunteers shoveling to move a dune in Lima from its original position.

Once all the special grains have been discovered, the sand hills will be abandoned and all the trucks and shovels and all the work of digging, sieving and moving the sand will be forgotten. (This isn’t strictly accurate, as transaction fees will still make it lucrative for miners to continue validating and keeping a ledger of all transactions even when there are no new coins to discover.) But the energy and productivity lost to other more useful projects will be forever gone. What will linger along with the coins mined will be the long-term effects of burning so much electrical energy and building specialized hardware that, with the exception of general purpose GPUs and CPUs, have little or no use for much else than mining coins.

One response I got from a cryptocurrency aficionado was that it’s no different from mining for gold. It’s true that similarities between the two are abound, and I wholeheartedly agree that mining for gold can be similarly wasteful, but gold is a scarce metal that has numerous applications and uses beyond being used for monetary exchange and jewelry. Geology.com rightly calls it the most useful metal. Gold is used in the CPU and RAM that power your computer and in solar panels that produce electricity from sunlight. They are used in medicine and in industry and to make the reflective layer of early and high-end CDs. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but digital coins have nothing to offer in any of those applications anymore than they could be used in the successor of Hubble, the James Webb space telescope‘s mirror, or as a lubricant in space vehicles. Nor could they be used in surgical equipment.The monetary value of gold may be arbitrary from one point of view, but its value as a metal should never be underestimated.

In fairness, the shortcomings of Bitcoin I criticism are not not unexpected. After all it’s the first digital currency. Nonetheless, we should be aware of them and their real cost as more and more of the general public partake.

Mining: A Crash Course

As the the pool of miners explodes at an exponential rate, the majority is bound to be casual people who are no more interested in understanding how coins are really mined than the majority understands where and how money is created in the physical world. But here we are interested in going further.

Any currency, physical or digital, has some key properties to secure before having any chance of becoming sustainable as a legal tender. In the physical world control of over amounts in circulation, ownership and prevention of counterfeiting are done in centralized fashions. First, the central bank or an equivalent legal entity is given the monopoly right to print and issue banknotes. (There was a time when banknotes were handwritten IOUs that promised a payout to the holder issued by any “bank.” It was with the advent of permanent banknotes and central banks that this transformed into the current standardized single-currency per state form.) Second, transactions perform by an intermediary banks are managed by said banks such that one cannot double-spend or transfer funds from a fictive account and illegally increase their stash. These two institutions, central banks and commercial banks, are centralized. Centralization is an Achilles’ heel to any alternative currency because it can be controlled and shutdown easily, whether by legal means or by Denial of Service attacks. Distributed currencies on the other hand are immune to this, but at the expense of complexity.

The main issue in distributed systems is that because no single entity controls the ownership and total amount in circulation, there is distrust and the risk of hostile take-over by a rough party. To protect against such attacks, Bitcoin has a validation and voting mechanism built in. This is where the latency in validating transactions comes from. Before a transaction is complete, first a certain minimum number of other miners must confirm it. In Bitcoin the minimum number of confirmation is calculated to be six, which puts the difficulty of double-spending (i.e. spending the already transferred funds for a second time,) computationally unfeasible.

But how do you find coins in the first place? This is the interesting part as it is both intertwined with the confirmation process above as well as the mentioned problem of counterfeiting. Because of its distributed nature, the information that your bank holds secret must be available in public. Otherwise, where should it be if not in a central place, which we established isn’t desirable? Therefore, all transactions as well as wallet balances are also public information. What isn’t public is the identity of the wallet owners. But the network of transactions that they had committed and the wallets at each end of every transaction are also known. So one can trace the full history of all available coins and transactions and the balance of every single wallet are all public information. Now to create new coins, a miner has to do two things: First, it find the longest valid chain of transactions that it receives from other miners (remember that there are potential attackers who are sending out invalid transaction chains to essentially steal coins,) thus choosing the hardest chain to fake by an attacker (this is the confirmation stage). Second, they start finding a new block by simply finding a random number, such that: SHA256(last_hash + random) < last_hash

This formula a simplified, but the principle is preserved. The SHA256 is a function that takes a sting of bytes of arbitrary length and returns a fixed-length bytes (a long number really). The last_hash is also the result of an SHA256, and it is the hash generated by the last miner in the chain. Miners repeatedly call SHA256 on the new combination that they generate based on the random number (called nonce) and typically count the leading zeros of the resulting hash. If a certain number of zeros are found, then their work is complete and they send it to other miners in the network, which do exactly as we did when we received the block chain. Because we include the resulting hash and the random nonce that we used in the new block, they are able to repeat the same operation and check the result. The key here is in the difficulty in finding a random value and a resulting hash that when ran through SHA256 matches.

If someone else had beaten us to finding a nonce that fits the requirement, we will have to discard our work thus far on the block, check their block and once confirmed, we add their block to the chain and start the above process of mining on their block. Whoever finds a block by the above process is awarded a certain number of coins (typically 50 coins, which are halved at certain intervals). And because the blocks include all the information necessary to know who is who (by unique numbers that are as hard to forge as finding blocks,) and how much they have, all the information is shared in the pool and available to everyone. Thereby forging and faking becomes near impossible.

It’s worth mentioning that if an attacker controls more than half the mining nodes in the pool, they will be able to send out fake block chains that will allow them to double-spend their coins, because their voting power will basically be more than anyone else’s.

As it’s clear, the process of mining is arbitrary and the difficulty of producing coins is only to give strong guarantees that forging will be simply practically impossible. In fact, SHA256 is computed twice to make it even less likely that someone will find a trick or a way to reduce the amount of work they have to do to find a hash. This is like asking someone to throw a coin until they get, say, 500 heads in a row, but with the difference in that they can’t claim they have without actually having to do it, thanks to the cryptographic security of the SHA256 function.

A Better Digital Currency

Digital currencies certainly have their merits and we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. The current crop are the first and the technology is still young. They rely heavily on cryptography, whence they get their name, not least because cryptography is well-developed and understood. We know how to create secure messages that are very easy to create and validate but exceeding hard to break or fake. These are exactly the properties one want to have in any distributed monetary system. It is why banknotes are only minted by governments and they use state of the art printing technology to make counterfeiting expensive if not impossibly hard. But there is no reason why we should move sand hills that do little more than waste a lot of valuable resources all for the arbitrary coins that presumed to be in demand and therefore of value.

Proteins

There are other problems that are very hard to solve, but checking the answer is easy. These problems are known as NP-Hard and the more hardcore subset which are called NP-Complete. These are the hardest problems that exist, in computational terms. To give just one example of type of problems that could be used as a mining proof of work, optimizing the distance the electrical wires have to run in a computer, or the wires, piping etc in a city belong to a group of optimization problems that can’t be solved in a reasonable time except for the most trivial cases. Finding the shortest paths of wiring in a CPU will probably take longer than the universe exists even if all the computer in the world combined their power to solve it. Given a path, it’s trivial to add up the total length and see if it’s shorter than the shortest know or not. In currency system that is built around optimizing such a problem, those who have shorter paths will fetch more value than those with longer ones. There will be an economy, much like memorabilia collectors, where common items have a certain range of prices and highly-sought items that are known to exist have last-seen-price and then there are speculative items that is said to be worth a certain amount if it exists. When such a rare item (or path in our case) is put for sale, the market will decide its value. Alternatively, the first to improve on the previous record broadcasts their results and once validated by more people than any other solution, their block chain becomes dominant and all other blocks with inferior solutions are discarded. Finding the lowest energy protein folding secondary and tertiary structures is another similar problem.

There are many problems that are attention worthy and some of them are known to be very promising in deed. Digital currency could be the perfect catalyst to motivate people to donate more and more of their time and resources towards these goals while generating real value for them in digital coins. These aren’t new ideas by any means, and some have already made attempts at them. Some were pipe dreams, while others might have started in earnest.

May 032013
 

I was probably never going cross paths with or hear about the five-year-old boy who shot his two-year-old sister dead, nor any of her parents. Odds are, most people on the planet wouldn’t know about them had it not been for the story that hit the news.

Unbeknownst to me, I had gotten in an argument with a pro-gun who hid his affection rather well, all the while I thought we were having a casual conversation.  As tragic as this is, and as a parent I can identify with the grief of losing a child. But I cannot feel sad any more than I can understand what a parent must feel knowing it wasn’t an accident out of their control, rather it was precisely a consequence of their upbringing. “No, it’s sad. It’s very sad.” I was told. To me sad is that nearly 9 million child dies every single year of malnutrition and other trivially-curable complications or diseases, I answered. “You aren’t sad for the 9 million dying children?”

No, I’m not sad. You know what Stalin said? He said, ‘a single death is sad, millions dead is a statistic.

Yes, that was the response I got.

And before I knew it, I got the argument for guns: Cars kill more people than guns, but you don’t want to ban cars, do you?

Before we get too worked up, let’s separate these two points: Emotions developed on hearing stories of unknown individuals, as tragic as they may be, is one thing, not having good arguments to defend a position and instead repeating bad arguments is a completely different matter.

Hume Rolls in his Grave

Kentucky State Police Trooper, Billy Gregory, said “in this part of the country, it’s not uncommon for a five-year-old to have a gun or for a parent to pass one down to their kid.” Regardless of whether I am pro gun or not, I must recognize one thing: Guns are dangerous.

“Passing down” guns to a five-year-old inherently and inevitably implies taking a certain risk. The risk of the gun going off, whether intentionally or accidentally. Failing to recognize this simple fact is akin to covering one’s face when losing control of their car. There might be multiple ways to resolve a problem, but ignoring it couldn’t be one of them.

If I start drinking and gambling, I shouldn’t expect anyone to be surprised when I lose everything and end up on the streets. I shouldn’t expect anyone to feel sad for my stupidity and bad choices. They might as well laugh at my surprise at the outcome. If I hand my twelve-year-old the car keys, should I or anyone else find it odd when they crash the car and damage people and property? Should I expect pity from others if the car crashes into my house damaging and injuring me?  Similarly, guns and children do not produce an infinite output of combinations: there are very few things that we should expect to happen from the marriage and we only hope it’s going to be playground fun. But hoping is no precaution.

I find it borderline humorous that people systematically give their children guns and then the whole world is gaping at the death of a child. I find it inevitable, unless steps are taken to prevent it. Like everyone else, I have limited energy, both emotionally and otherwise, and I prefer to spend them on preventable causes that affect countless more children, equally fragile, equally lovable and equally rightful to life.

Just because we find it easier to write off millions of deaths to statistics doesn’t make it right. I’m sure Stalin had other apt utterance worthy of quoting in the light of the massacres, deportations and cold-blood killings that he sanctioned. But should we take comfort in the coldness of the indifference that we may feel at the death of millions of children who, like the victim in this case, haven’t yet seen their fifth birthday? Does Stalin’s ludicrous indifference have any bearing on how one feels or should feel?

Stalin’s quote was at once shocking and baffling to me. I didn’t know if using it was an excuse and justification for one’s feelings, or lack thereof, or it was a Freudian slip. Either way, just because something is doesn’t imply what it ought to be, morally speaking. Perhaps we should start feeling sad about these children of have-not parents. The children dying of famine have only nature and our inaction to blame. The five-year-old who killed his sister, in contrast, has his parents to blame for preferring to buy him a gun (or at least allowing him to own one) instead of a multitude other things they could have done, not least buying him a book to read and learn from in the hope of bettering himself and his society.

I cannot feel sad for the decisions of others, any more than I can prevent them from taking these decisions. However the same couldn’t be said of the children dying of malnutrition and lack of clean water. In the later case I can prevent it, and my (collectively our, really) inaction to save a single more child is sad indeed.

At least in one sense he was right, though. We cannot begin to imagine anything in the millions, but a single child with a picture in the news is readily reachable. But that only speaks of our limitations of being human, and hopefully not of our inhumanity.

Guns and Cars

I have heard many decent arguments for crazy things, including keeping slaves and leaving women out of the workforce (and typically in the kitchen) among others. Here “decent” doesn’t mean acceptable or justifiable, rather that the point in an of itself having a merit. They fail because taken in the full context of the issue, a single argument for or against something as complex as these topics doesn’t simply have enough weight.

Slavery had many benefits to slaves, not least steady income, job security and living space. And at least some women will not mind if given half a chance to be relieved of the burden of providing for oneself and their family entails. Women aren’t unique in wishing for an easier lifestyle than working forty-hour-weeks.

But these arguments fail to resolve the issue one way or the other because they are incomplete. They shed light on a single aspect and it’s a very narrow one at that as well. Cars do kill people, perhaps much more people than guns (clearly here we are ignoring wars). I’ve read numbers as high as 500,000 annual deaths from car accidents.

Do I want to ban cars for this huge loss that they cause? Yes, and in a sense we do already. The traffic and car licensing laws have evolved in response to both the dangers that are inherent in driving and the exploding number of cars and motorists. Driving under the influence of alcohol (given a certain allowance, if at all) is a grave offense in many states and countries and can be a felony if others are injured. Multiple offenses typically result in revoking the license and often sentencing to jail.

More importantly, the argument is weak and irrelevant because it appeals to one’s disposition, bias and shortcomings of undermining the perils of cars. Indeed, many of us cringe upon hearing about spiders and snakes, let alone seeing one, but may jaywalk in heavy traffic, sometimes with children.

We should avoid driving whenever we can and we should have better laws, education, responsible drivers and car owners as well as better traffic rules to minimize their risks. But we should also do the same for guns. Giving them to kids should simply be an offense no less sever than letting a minor drive your car. Having a gun gifted to a child, by maker called “My first rifle,” and then pretending that the gun will be locked in a safe is simply avoiding to see things for what they are. Children are attached to their toys and I guess that’s the point of manufacturing guns for them in the first place – they are expected to become loyal gun owners for many more years.

All this pretending that guns have benefits to society on equal footing to cars to justify their risks. I am not willing to give such a blank license to cars and will demand improving the situation to avoid unnecessary injury and loss of life from car accidents. But the onus for proving the benefits of guns to be even remotely comparable to those of cars is certainly not on me. Let alone the benefit of guns to kids.

When someone kills another with their car, they cannot claim that injury is a risk we’ve come to accept, so why prosecute them anymore than a gun owner can claim the same. But let’s not pretend that owning guns is a right without restrictions, because being responsible is all about restrictions, first to oneself before others.

We will never take responsibility if we don’t see the inherent dangers of our choices and if we don’t understand that both car and gun deaths are preventable and they are both of our choosing, and as long as we view our actions vicariously.

Evidently, the grandmother of the now-dead two-year-old has a different understanding of cause and effect than mind. “It was God’s will. It was her time to go, I guess, I just know she’s in heaven right now and I know she’s in good hands with the Lord.” She said.

I feel sorry for the five-year-old for having the parents he has, and I can only hope he will not repeat the same mistakes when the roles are reversed.

Apr 202013
 

I just got my Raspberry Pi a couple of weeks ago from Newark/Element14. First impressions are great!

All I needed was an SD card and the HDMI cable that came with the TV set. Downloaded “wheezy” and placed on the SD card. Hooked my favorite toy, the “remote control” (a.k.a. Logitech K400) and I had a complete system with little effort. I hooked a mini USB cable from the Pi to the TV to power it. Flawless first boot.

Out of the box it has everything essential, including web browsers, Python Idle and a Scratch - a puzzle-like game development platform that the kids love. Hooking a Cat5 to the router and internet. Apt-getting mplayer and Gnash (open flash player). Video is unusable without the hardware acceleration, which requires license fees to enable the codecs, though. However internet radio is very much within reach. Depending on the bitrate and codec, it uses anywhere between 25% to 75% of CPU cycles. Oh, and I had to get the stream IP from the .pls files on shoutcast, but that’s trivial to wrap in a script that wget, sed and spawns mplayer.

As a toy, experimentation lab/playground, Swiss Army knife embedded system, or educational platform, it’s very hard to beat. At $25 for model A and $35 for model B, it does more than it costs.

I couldn’t be happier with exchanging my hard earned cash with the Pi, so you can imagine my surprise when I got a call from Newark to ask about the feedback on the delivery and my order  (both of which were fantastic) and was asked if I minded that if they sent me a discount code on my mail. To top it off, I was encouraged to share them with you.

Here is a snippet of the thank-you email:

Thank you for your most recent order! We appreciate your business and as a thank you we would like to extend to you a 15% off voucher. The Voucher code is THANKS1C and it can be used as many times as you would like through April 30th, 2013. After May 1st, use code THANKS2 which is good through June 1st 2013. Feel free to share with whomever you would like.  When placing an order over our website, please type in the voucher code on the shopping cart page. If you are ordering by phone, simply give the code to the representative processing your order. There are lots of ways to take advantage of this limited offer from our award winning website http://canada.newark.com  to our knowledgeable and friendly team waiting to take your call at 1 800 463 9275. You may also send your quote to quo...@newark.com or email a purchase order to ord...@newark.com.

THANKS1C (through April 30th, 2013)

THANKS2 (from May 1st through June 1st 2013)

Note:

Discount applies to the first price-break quantities only. Discount cannot be combined with other offers, promotions, quantity discounts, or contract pricing. Contractual considerations with a small number of manufactures may reduce or prevent a voucher discount on selected items including test equipment; Cannot be used on Raspberry PI. call us with questions relating to voucher exclusions. Non-catalog items are not subject to a voucher discount.

It’s reasonable that the discount doesn’t apply to the Pi, considering that it’s a non-profit and sold at cost price. So, share them, use them and hope you give Raspberry Pi a spin and let me hear your thoughts. It’s well worth it.

Apr 082013
 

Apparently there is an ongoing war between FEMEN, a feminist organization that protests topless, and a group calling themselves Muslim Women Against Femen, among others.

What is of interest to me is the rhetoric and politics at play. FEMEN is not exactly known for taking the diplomatic road to getting their voice across. Whatever their methods, whether one agrees with them or not, or whether they are effective, considering that so far they got huge backlash and won controversy more than anything, the response is certainly interesting.

The row ignited when Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old FEMEN activist, posted topless pictures of herself on FEMEN-Tunesia’s Facebook page with “Fuck your morals” in English and “My body is my own, not anyone’s honor” in Arabic. A certain preacher called Adel Almi was quoted by Tunisian newspaper Kapitalis that she deserves 80 to a 100 lashes according to the sharia law, but added that due to the gravity of her actions, which he believed may encourage other women to do the same and bring an “epidemic” and “catastrophes,” merits death by stoning.

FEMEN has reacted by protesting, as any feminist human should do. A photo of a man apparently kicking a topless FEMEN member protesting in front of the Great Mosque of Paris was posted in a piece on The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. A video of that protest, with the man in question, is available on Vimeo.

Muslim Women Against Femen has responded with an open letter with eight-point objections of Muslimahs (Muslim women) to FEMEN. In addition, a number of women (including a child) have posted their photos on Facebook holding slogans to the same effect and interviews with supporters on The Huffington Post.

What is amazing is that between the preacher, Muslim Women Against Femen, and the women with the slogans, not a single reference is made to the young woman responsible for the debate in the first place. Amina Tyler is missing from the picture and there is good reason to fear for her life.

The Muslimahs who took to themselves the right and initiation to defend their rights and religion, some of whom are self-identified feminists, apparently forgot to do Tyler even a lip-service to denounce any harm that could be inflicted on her. Instead, they took the opportunity to first generalize and speak for all “Muslim women, women of colour and women from the Global South,” as if appointed spokespersons. Second, the opportunity to lash at “racist, imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist, colonialists” was not missed, never mind that they are irrelevant.

Some of the slogans in the self-photos read “Do I look oppressed?” and a child of perhaps five held one that read “Shame on ‘FEMEN’ Hijab is my right!” I do not see anyone taking anyone’s rights from them, if anything the rights of Amina are the ones at risk. Least of all the rights of a child, which, I should add, beyond their welfare, health and education they can barely demand any rights that adults don’t give them. Which raises the question of who, if not her parents, gave her the “right” to wear a hijab when she clearly is in no position to choose to wear one anymore than the blue-jeans that she has on. Besides, if these women are not oppressed, they need not answer to the calling. (Although I do wonder if that will remain to be the case if and when they decide to change their outfit.)

The open-letter doesn’t offer any more wisdom from the thirteen or so university students who wrote it. Rife with ignorant accusations, misguided rhetoric, contradictions and ad-hominem attack on the protesters. If they are to be believed, “FEMEN is a colonial, racist rubbish disguised as “women’s liberation”,” and “rubbing shoulders with far-right, racist and Islamophobic groups is just ANTI-FEMINIST beyond bounds” and “EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.” And members of FEMEN “don’t really care about violence and harm being inflicted upon women, you only care about that when it is perpetrated by brown men with long beards who pray five times a day.” Which is quite interesting considering that the group had focused most of its activity to protest against “sex tourists, religious institutions, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social, national and international topics.” In fact, had the authors check their facts they would have run into FEMEN’s four-point goals on their MySpace page explicitly targets “Ukrainian women” and “Ukraine” explicitly. Not to mention that if anything Ukraine was a victim of -Russian- colonialism. (But I guess all “white” people are “racist” and “colonialist.”)

Completely oblivious to the irony that it was a Muslim (male) preacher who called for the lashing and stoning of Amina Tyler, the authors declare “we don’t have to conform to your customs of protest to emancipate ourselves. Our religion does that for us already, thank you very much.”

In a particularly off-topic and a below-the-belt swing, the epistle writers pulled a punch on the physique of the topless protesters saying that “not all of us are white, skinny, physically non-disabled [sic] and willing to whip off our tops merely for press attention.” Perhaps alluding to both being white and skinny as undesirable attributes in women (by who?). To add insult to injury, they advised them to “check yourselves before you go into the streets again.”

Perhaps of the more salient remark is that the authors “understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial ‘feminists’ to believe, but- SHOCKER! – Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well!” The takeaway seems to be that while encouraging Muslim women to protest against oppression is “racist,” to say “white colonial ‘feminists’” is not. (Again, never mind that Islam is not a race, but white is.)

They advise the protesters to “Take aim at male supremacy, not Islam.” Perhaps oblivious to the fact that some male supremacists are also Muslim. They conclude the letter with the banner “SMASH THE WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY! POWER TO THE MUSLIMAHS!”

One has to wonder, what has colonialism and racism anything to do with defending the rights of a woman to post her own topless photos online without getting stoned to death?

One could give them the benefit of doubt and assume they simply didn’t understand what the issue was, had these women not been from Birmingham and other “western,” “colonial,” “capitalist” and “imperial” cities, instead of the “Global South” and the middle-east. Not only did they fail to address the subject matter, that of a teenage woman getting death threats for no other reason that posting her own photos online, but they muddled the “messed up world” that “we live in” (as they called it) even further. Silence in the face of injustice and oppression is a form of injustice and oppression. Do they really believe Amina deserves to be stoned to death? That she is a “white colonial racist” herself to be fought? Or is anyone who doesn’t agree with their ultra-conservative views is an enemy to be chased away?

Muslim Women Against Femen are not oppressed, but they wouldn’t lift a finger to support a sister under death treat. They wouldn’t recognize her right to control her body and her outfit. They wouldn’t even speak out against the preacher who is openly encouraging others to take matters into their own hands and apply the harsh law of lashing, nay, stoning her. Instead, they took to grinding the ax of “white colonialism.” Like the preacher, they feel threatened, and fear a “epidemic” of sorts.

“Nudity DOES NOT liberate me and I DO NOT need saving” read on of the slogans. Perhaps, but you aren’t implying that Amina doesn’t need or deserve saving either, are you?

What feminist ignores the need of another woman under attack by male preachers calling for her stoning? Apparently those who believe the protests of FEMEN is a “crusade.”

Meanwhile, a petition to prosecute those who threatened Amina Tyler’s life has already collected more than 110,000 signatures. At least there are still some left who differentiate between agreeing with someone’s opinion and agreeing to their right of having an opinion.

Jan 052012
 

Go Daddy is one of the largest, if not the largest, domain registrar. So it is that much unfortunate that they also support SOPA. The “carpet bombing” attack on piracy dubbed SOPA will most certainly wipe-out many legitimate businesses and gratis sites, not least freedom of speech and news organizations, including human, animal and consumer rights organizations that are sure to step on the toes of some giant corporations in due process. This is sure to put open-source software at risk as well. The broad brush that SOPA is will not hinder any party from unfairly claiming copyright infringement, promptly shutting down a competitor or whistle blower at an opportune time to protect their interests, leaving the receiving party scrambling in the legal-equivalent to quick sand.

I’m joining tens of thousands in boycotting Go Daddy and moving this domain to another, more freedom-loving, technology and internet friendly and, ultimately, sane registrar, at least as far as the future of the internet is concerned. I’ve already started transferring my domain to Namecheap.com (affiliate link).

If they don’t see that SOPA will slowly, but surely, stagnate the internet, then may be the boycott will make them. If the numbers are to be believed upwards of 35,000 domains have already transferred. At a nominal $7 annual fee, that’s already a significant chunk of cash lost annually. I expect many have dozens of domains and use some of the more advanced features such as SSL certificates, which is more revenue lost by the transfers. This move could easily cost companies supporting SOPA millions of dollars in potentially long-term, recurring money.

This isn’t an emotional reaction in the name of freedom and human rights, not just. Go Daddy is known to engage in dubious activities and it might be said that they had it coming. One of the more annoying of said activities is giving customers the impression that their domain is about to expire if not immediately renewed. The spam mails start hitting the mailbox 90 days before the expiry. While the warning is fair and welcome, 90 days isn’t exactly imminent in any sense. Of course once renewed, the remaining weeks or months to the actual deadline are lost, thereby shortening the effective period for which one pays. This kind of tactics don’t make the already high prices any more appealing. To add insult to injury, they have an almost weekly promotional spam that dilutes the expiry warning’s effectiveness. I for one learnt to ignore their mail, while having a mental note of when to renew my domain.

According to ZDNet, Go Daddy has reversed its support of SOPA. But as the ZDNet reporter put it “we now know that what really mattered in Go Daddy’s shift in policy wasn’t the legal or ethical issues; it was the old bottom line.”

Well, Go Daddy no more; welcome Namecheap!

(This site might go dark for a few hours during the transfer process which I hope to complete sometime before the 10th of January. I’m working hard to minimize the outage. Apologies for any unavailability or inconvenience.)

Update: Just found out that Bob Parsons, the CEO of Go Daddy group, happens to enjoy elephant hunting! He released a video showing and justifying the barbaric act of shooting and killing a defenseless animal.

Sep 272011
 

Haven’t we all written Fibonacci sequence generators, sorting and searching algorithms and a handful of data-structures while learning to program? What’s common in these problems is their simplicity. I almost said triviality, but there are nuances that the beginner will stumble in and, hopefully, learn from. (And isn’t that the whole point of the exercise anyway?)

Fibonacci is a great introduction to recursion. Sorting teaches us the fundamentals of algorithms, complexity and of course data-structures and searching. We learn that not all ways of organizing data are born equal. Linked lists have a leg over arrays some of the time, but their ranks are reversed at other times.

This is how we learn about our tools and how to use them and when. It’s the equivalent of painting fences. Without these mental gymnastics we’d have to open up textbooks and look up for “how to find duplicates in two sets” or wonder why the data is sometimes shuffled around, but not always (hint: dictionaries typically don’t preserve order, unless you use one that explicitly guarantees order).

The answer to “why is our product all of a sudden too slow and customers are complaining now when it was lightning fast for years?” isn’t in any textbook. However, if one assumes the customer data might have doubled, a seasoned programmer would first check for a quadratic algorithm (or worse) somewhere in the code-path.

While there is no doubt, at least in my mind, that it’s absolutely necessary to work out all these contrived problems, from writing a 4-operation calculator with an expression parser to solving wick wack woe, I think we should include a whole other genre of problems in our training kits.

The Unsolvables

There is a group of problems that, as far as we know, have no solutions. That is, the solution is known to be found only by brute force or an approximation exists using heuristics (basically trial-and-error or some form of genetic algorithm.) There is the obvious usual-suspects, the NP-Complete folk. But not only. There are algorithms that run in quadratic and polynomial time that aren’t practical beyond some size.

There is no better way to get a very real feel of what it means for an algorithm to run in quadratic time than to actually write the code and see how you age as your machine churns away hopelessly, all the while another algorithm with a lower complexity has just finished.

Take Quick sort for example. Implementing the textbook algorithm will work swiftly, that is, until you feed it sorted data. Multiplication using the school-method is simple and elegant, until you apply it to large numbers. Trying to optimize such a primitive algorithm is very instructive. It teaches you that it’s not about optimization; the complexity is inherent. Yet, we don’t use Merge sort with its O(n log n) worst case performance and default to Quick sort with its O(n2) worst case characteristic. This is not at all obvious to a beginner, and even for many experienced programmers. Theory and practice sometimes do part ways. And that’s yet another important lesson.

Without attempting to solve a travelling salesman problem or a knapsack problem we are in danger of never really understanding why complexity is important. Why some algorithms are hopeless and will get back to haunt you one day, while others seem to be stuck in their misery and can hardly be improved.

And what better way to understand how and, more importantly, why modern cryptography works than to try to factorize numbers? Searching for prime numbers is yet another long-time problem that only recently it was proved that primality testing is polynomial, and how is all that related to one-way functions.

There is also another purpose to this exercise. It’s not obvious where the difficulty of solving these unsolved problems is. At first sight almost anyone presented by such a problem will come up with some solution of sorts. It’s not until much later, and with much mental effort, that one does notice the errors of their ways. It might be a hidden complexity that they introduced in their algorithm while being oblivious to it that negated the gains they scored elsewhere. It might be that the obvious or straight-forward solution misses a very simple, but equally crucial, case. Or, it may be that their solution is broken in one way or another. Either way, it’s not enough to know about the problems, their status and move on. There is much to be learned from solving unsolved problems.

The Impossibles

But why stop there? Why stop at the travelling salesman or a variation of the knapsack problem? While we’re at it, let’s introduce non-computability and noncomputable functions.

I’m sure these topics are very well studied in some grad schools. But the average CS school undergrad would probably firmly believe the fastest growing functions are the exponential. (I still have to get a different answer during an interview.) Whatever happened to Busy Beavers? Apparently, a noncomputable can actually grow faster than any computable function! Now try to beat that in the department of slow algorithms.

Conclusion

I think it would be a great service to our industry if every once in a while the school assigns an unsolvable problem. Send the students home with a travelling salesman problem or two and ask them to bring in the numbers the next week. It’d prove much more instructive to see the 5-city problem solved in seconds while the 25-city…

And who knows, we might as well get a Dantzig moment! (Incidentally, he‘s the inventor of Simplex, the single most useful algorithm in optimization.)

Aug 102011
 

Few directors dare to leave the audience in complete darkness with a most eerie music and to do than not only once, but twice. György Ligeti‘s Atmospheres makes for an exclusive performance for the first full three minutes of one of the most audacious productions of the 20th century.

An Orion III, Pan Am's first Space Clipper, fe...

Image via Wikipedia

The movie isn’t a typical sci-fi. The slow pace, meticulously-setup scenes and larger-than-life photography takes the viewer’s breath away. Kubrick, a perfectionist in his own right, makes no compromises. The pace of the movie does perfect justice to the surreal, extravagant and colorful shots coupled with the moving music of Aram Khachaturian, Ligeti and Strauss. One can’t appreciate this work of art without first appreciating that the movie is the journey and not the finale.

Considering the stunning special effects in the movie and the human-like voice of HAL 9000, it’s quite surprising that virtually every single sci-fi before and since do not replicate this rather reasonable feat of inevitable progress. And this was done in 1968 no less. Instead, we’re left with robotic-sounding computers and other “smart” gadgets, even though some of them depict events centuries in the future. To add insult to injury, most of them simply do away with the difficulties and logistics of gravitation-free environments. Perhaps the latter is explained in pragmatic terms, but to their credit Kubrick and Clark don’t compromise on this point, instead they actually make for a great experience. The photography of the workout scene and all those involving walking about, be it to serve food on the moon-bus or to get into a shuttle, are simply worth every second on screen as did the multitudes of hours spent creating them. Of the scenes that truly standout in this regard are those where two people are standing perpendicular to each other going about their business undistributed.

No one better than Stanley Kubrick could take the masterpiece of Arthur C. Clark, yet another perfectionist, and do this good a job. Indeed, Kubrick personally must have had an appreciable influence on the development of the plot and story. Even then his work wouldn’t be complete without sharing credit for the screenplay with Clark.

Throughout the movie I suspected the music of the opening, moon-bus scene, intermission and of course the final scene were most probably that of Krzysztof Penderecki. Kubrick had made perfect use of Penderecki’s music his 1980′s The Shinning in addition to Ligeti’s Lontano, which, unbeknownst to me, was also used in the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, along with Melodien and Volumina, which I’ve listen to extensively. Penderecki’s music is no less unique and indeed eerie then that of Ligeti’s, which more than explains why some portions of the his cello concerto was used in The Excorcist, which unlike The Shinning I found lacking and somewhat ludicrous.

After finally watching the movie, I’d like to find time to read the book. The plot and themes touched in the book are simply much more profound than a movie could do justice too. Even at almost 150 minutes, the movie leaves the ending open to wild speculation and personal interpretation. Still, this is certainly one of those classics that not only sci-fi fans, but also those appreciative of grandiose and thoroughly beautiful cinematography would most certainly enjoy. Especially when watched on a large screen with a decent sound system.

Jul 172011
 

Some of us have to work a good 16 hours a day, or more. Some split this time between school and job, multiple jobs, job and hobby project or spend it on their one-and-only job or startup. After a while, waking up becomes a struggle. Disoriented, exhausted and sleep deprived. We work hard because we care. Because we want to make the best of our projects, be it personal, academic or professional. Here are some of things that I found improve this situation significantly when working on major projects for long periods. This isn’t be-all, end-all advice – there is no such thing. They are just good guidelines. I know, they are so simple and sound so obvious.

Disclaimer: I didn’t include exercise and other healthy activities. This isn’t medical or lifestyle advice. It’s just good notes to make the best of a major and important project. If this doesn’t work for you, don’t blame me.

Sleep

This is the single most important factor that can make or break. Get a good night sleep. It’s false economy to pull all-nighter and wake up late. Reverse it; sleep when you feel sleepy and wake up early. If you find it very hard to wake up and/or work, get as much done before sleep, but don’t overdo it. Try to improve your morning performance and shift your work hours towards the morning. Sure, sometimes we need to send some mail or prepare for a demo. Working for extended hours in those cases is probably fine, but make sure you make up for them soon. If possible, finish the absolute minimum before sleep and get the rest done in the morning. When we disrupt our sleep patterns by pulling all-nighters, it’s harder to make up for them.

The trick to good sleep is first and foremost to get in bed in time. Your body will give you the right cues, just pay attention. If you feel sleepy, go to bed, don’t wait 15 minutes to finish something. Be ready for it. Anticipate when your body will be ready to sleep, make sure you’ll be ready by then. Don’t do last-minute things like washing teeth, sending mails, setting up wake up alarms etc. right before stepping in bed. Get these done beforehand. If you miss that perfect time, your body will find it harder to get into deep sleep, which is the most regenerative type.

A sleepy mind with all the right answers will probably perform worse than an alert and fresh one with half the answers. Work hard only when you can afford being sleepy and slow. Never overwork before a big days like exams, interview, client meeting, project planning etc. Finish all the work at least 2 nights before the big day and make sure you get baby-sleep during the last couple of nights. Remember that our long-term memory needs deep sleep to accumulate new information. Last-night study will not only leave you sluggish and out of your zone during exam, but you won’t remember most of what you study a few hours later.

Exceptions are pretty much the norm. Plan for the long-term, not for every situation. Try to get an average of 7 hours of sleep per night during an average week. Figure out your natural average for yourself, it may be different. Sleeping also boosts our immune system.

Corollary

Alternatively, if you can’t fall asleep, don’t try hard. Either get some work done until you’re sleepy (at which point leave everything and go to bed,) or read a book in bed until you sleep (but don’t sleep with your glasses and lights on.) Don’t spend a couple of hours tossing and turning in bed, instead use that time to get something done. If your eyes are tired, try listening an audiobook or some music.

Eat

Nutrition comes next. When trying to meet a deadline we might skip a meal or two, get junk food or just go on coffee or coke. If you can plan your day, and you know it’s going to be a long one, make sure you make room for a good full-meal. If you can go out for lunch break, do so. You’ll be able to get a decent meal and give yourself a break. This will give you both physical energy and have a recreational effect. You’ll get back refreshed. Avoid going on bad diet for long periods of time. Minimize coffee if possible. Drink some fresh juice, tea, hot/cold chocolate and other beverages, including water. Caffeine, like alcohol, is diuretic. It dehydrates your body. It’s effect in increasing alertness doesn’t last very long either.

Make sure you don’t go on an empty stomach to important meetings. Being hungry makes most of us edgy and easy to get irritated. It’ll probably make you impatient as well, which isn’t a trait you want to have when making critical decisions.

Make sure your body is getting essential nutrients. Your immune system is at its weakest when stressed and sleep-deprived. Make sure you’re not malnourished as well when going on a spree. So the-daily-pizza has to make room for other -more healthy- meals. Lunch breaks with nutritious meals will more than pay back when you don’t get bed ridden for a few days on end, or drag yourself to work for a couple of weeks with a red runny nose, when the flu season hits.

Corollary

Don’t over eat! Not being hungry doesn’t mean having a 110% full stomach either. This is especially true if you have to do mental and/or physical activity (as opposed to mechanical and tedious work.) Eating too much will get you sluggish and sleepy. Moderation is the key.

Don’t Drink (too much)

It’s well known that a bit of drink after a long day is a good relaxant. This works best with soft liquors like wine, martini, champagne and beer in small quantities. Consume hard liquor or excessive soft ones at your peril. Alcohol is actually known to disrupt our sleep patterns. It’ll dehydrate you, leaving you thirsty all night and give you a nice buzzing headache in the morning. So not only you won’t get a good deep sleep, but you’ll wake up tired and hungover. The best way to use alcohol as a relaxant is, after dinning, to drink no more than 100-150ml (half a cup) and, once you feel a bit buzzed, go to bed. The difference between half a beer and a full bottle will probably cost you the next day.

If you must, drink on Fridays or when you can afford to take the next day off. But don’t drink like there’s no tomorrow.

Take a Break

During a long day as well as during a long project, make sure you get refreshing power breaks. The lunch break outside the office is one such. Try to do something unrelated, even if on the same project or subject. I take coffee breaks (but I avoid coffee as such) when I get stuck or between tasks. This forces me to get up and stretch my muscles as well as socialize. The chances that I’ll be distracted are extremely high, which is the point of the break. However, make sure you won’t be dragged into something extended. Limit the break to 15-20 minutes max but typically 10. Socializing in person is a great way to do this, but don’t get into a global warming argument! Even talking about work will be refreshing. I tend to read a few pages from a non-technical book like popular science. Watching a funny sketch, video clip or reading a blog article is also a good way to get away.

Take power-naps if it’s your thing whenever you can. For some people who like napping even dozing off for 10 minutes during the day gives them a great boost. If you can’t nap, try stretching on a sofa and relax. Reading or listening chill music can also help you get a grip during a hectic day.

Every so often, take an early leave or a day off. Go do something completely different and unlike your daily habit. Even if you stay-in and sleep or go for a walk and watch a movie, you’ll get back to your project much more refreshed and enthused.

Corollary

Be wary of getting out of your zone. If you’re making progress and things are rolling like a well-oiled machine, don’t stop! In fact, avoid distractions at all cost. Being in the zone is when we’re most efficient and productive. Switch your IM to “Busy” or “Don’t disturb” status. Check email and get back to colleagues later. Make it clear when you don’t want to be interrupted unless the building is collapsing so your colleagues will be mindful. When taking breaks or power-naps, be very aware of the time. Set alarms and go back to work when your time is up. If you’re too tired to work, then either go get some sleep, discuss work-related topics or do some other mentally undemanding and mechanical task. Any progress is better then idle chatter or web surfing (aka watching funny pics.)

Don’t Work Too Hard

In some professions keeping up with industry can be critical for success. Burying one’s head in some project for extended time might not be the wisest of decisions. Don’t neglect the rest of the world. Working too hard on your project will probably have diminishing returns beyond some point anyway. Instead, try to keep your proverbial finger on the trends pulse. Spend some time reading the news, read on similar projects, success and failure stories, blogs with insightful technical and non-technical information. Look for smart ways to take shortcuts and reuse other successful platforms or components. Look for good patterns and stories from people like yourself. Keep an eye on competition, both existing and potential. But don’t overwhelm yourself with news and obsessive competition tracking. Get back to your project and get focused.

Working too hard may not be the most efficient way to make a successful project. Be thoughtful of the alternatives. Having a well-rested and fresh mind will certainly help with this.

Bottom-line (TL;DR)

  • Sleep well: makes you fresh, active and in your zone. But if you can’t sleep, get some work done.
  • Eat well: replenish your energy and nutrients. But don’t overeat.
  • Don’t drink: not when you have to work the next day. But half a pint before sleep may help.
  • Take a break: refresh and clear your mind. But don’t get carried away.
  • Don’t work too hard: keep updated on news, competition and advice from others. But don’t overwhelm yourself.
Jun 232011
 

We live in a time where communication is evermore effortless and taken for granted. So much so, that the audience is impatient to get to the point and the authors need say more in less.

I learned this the hard way. My most recent article, which weighed in at ~2200 words, was quickly buried when submitted on a social site. I could tell it was the length had something to do with it. I wasted no time; I shredded 2/3rd of the article and came up with an abridged version. At 800+ words, at least one person complained that it’s not abridged enough. Yet, where the original got less than 40 views, the abridged version got over 2000 hits in the first day and translated into Japanese.

This is very unfortunate. Because, at one extreme, one should just state their conclusions as tersely as possible, and on the other, one should write a book-load to make well-founded arguments. The latter is when the topic you’re trying to tackle is complicated, controversial, highly-misunderstood or all of the above. You have no much choice but to go at length stating where you’re coming from and where your arguments lead. What about the other extreme? When can or should one be terse? Hard to say, but one thing is for sure: being concise and articulate are exceedingly difficult.

Yet, fortunately, there are those who appreciate a well fleshed-out article. The same article, unabridged, seems to have made the front page of DZone.com, where the article is republished, and from there over 600 hits followed to this site (2300 more on dzone.)

But how long is too long? Turns out it depends on the subject and the target audience. On the web, I suspect most typically want to get the gist in under 400 words. Should every lengthy article get an abridged version? Probably not. But if one wants to be heard, one should be mindful of their target audience. You can have the most insightful things to say, yet if no one has the patience to listen, then you might as well do something different… or rather, do it differently.

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