Category Archives: Technology

Don’t Stop Talking About Your Ideas

A tweet this morning pointed to an article titled “Stop talking about your brilliant startup idea!“, in which a fellow Melbournian writes (in summary):

Nobody cares about your idea.

Stop talking to your friends about your ideas.

Stop talking to customers about your ideas.

Stop telling me your ideas.

As harsh as that may sound, there is a better reason to “stop talking.” There’s plenty of scientific evidence on the notion of secrecy, which shows that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen. Derek Sivers wrote about it a few years back:

Once you’ve told people of your intentions, it gives you a “premature sense of completeness.”

You have “identity symbols” in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it “neglects the pursuit of further symbols.”

Having said that, I also think that “nourishment” of ideas has merit. Talking about ideas early-on, yet informally, is a form of “rubber ducking” that forces one to explain their thoughts to others. It not only helps in garnering feedback and involving like-minded collaborators, but it also helps in refining the concept in one direction or another. Such informal discussion, starting at 17th century coffee houses in particular, has been playing an important role in the cultural, social and intellectual advancements since The Renaissance.

The Ottoman empire expanded throughout Europe in the 17th century. From Vienna came the idea of a place where men could meet and discuss various topics over coffee or tea (Viennese coffee house culture). Adapted to Western culture, the Turkish “coffee cafes” became the place where friends met for a drink. The tradition of the Agora was moved from the public square to the center city cafe. Philosophers, poets, writers, and intellectuals of all types made these places their new meeting places. (source: Predecessors of Café Philosophique)

The coffee shops, taverns and pubs back then were a place where people could gather and share ideas. It was the “conjugal bed” where ideas could have sex, as Matt Ridley would say (his TED Talk). Shakespeare and many other laureates hung out at these places to discuss their ideas, encourage and critique each other, learn, and most importantly — listen. Without the listening part, it would all have been a huge echo chamber.

Coffee House

Today, new environments like Internet forums, online or offline social networking, co-working spaces etc. are filling the shoes. So don’t stop talking about your ideas. But listen more.

How Can Hackers Help In The Fight Against Cancer?

When 1 in 3 humans are affected by a disease, it needs attention and help from all corners. There are many types of cancers, so it’s hard to say if we’ll ever be able to completely cure cancer. But prevention, early detection and proper care are crucial in cancer diagnosis and its treatment.

As David Agus, a cancer doctor, would like to say:

In health care today, we spend most of the dollars — in terms of treating disease — in the last two years of a person’s life.

I pondered on it one evening and thought I’d find out about some “programmable” possibilities related to cancer research for hackers from the non-scientific community, besides the obvious means of help like donations (both charity and research), awareness drives and volunteering.

I got in touch with Jon Kiddy, a software engineer who works at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Jon kindly shared his views and pointed out that the current state of cancer research can be summed up in one of Daniel Markham’s excellent posts. After having read the book on the subject called “The Emperor of All Maladies”, Daniel went on to state the general problem with cancer research is that the US healthcare isn’t setup to support individualized care and treatment, which is currently undergoing the most intensive scrutiny. A commentor on Hacker News responded to Daniel’s post with this inspiring message:

You want to fix cancer, don’t wait for the scientists. They are hobbled by regulation. Be an engineer: get out there and make one of the viable solutions work, and make it work outside the US.

What started as modest self-education, has led me to several impactful ways in helping with cancer research:

1. Distributed Computing Projects – In 2003, with grid computing, in less than three months scientists identified 44 potential treatments to fight the deadly smallpox disease. Without the grid, the work would have taken more than one year to complete. Participating in a distributed computing project is the easiest way to get involved with cancer research.

You can donate your unused computer resources to research projects like Help Conquer Cancer, Help Fight Childhood Cancer, Rosetta@home, Folding@home.

Grid computing works by splitting complex computations into small pieces that can be processed simultaneously on individual public nodes, there-by reducing research time and making the technology infrastructure cost-effective.

2. Build on “Big Data” – Massive amounts of raw data is available for analysis in cancer research. As Jon wrote back to me:

The problem comes when there is such a large amount of data to process in a field where each individual’s treatment is usually uniquely suited only to them. Hadoop/Hbase is in use by The Cancer Genome Atlas to make some of this process more bearable. Their datasets are invaluable.

The combination of Apache Hadoop (for distributed computing), HBase (distributed database), MapReduce (for distributed computing on large datasets on clusters of computers), R Project (for statistical computing), and Gephi (for visualization and exploration) changes the way we think about analysis of Big Data.

Data analysis, data visualization and even Web crawler technology are all important in cancer research, for processing highly distributable problems across huge datasets using a large number of computers.

Last year, the Cloudera Data Science Team wrote about some of their work with Hadoop:

Instead of focusing on a handful of outcomes, we can process all of the events in the data set at the same time. We can try out hundreds of different strategies for cleaning records, stratifying observations into clusters, and scoring drug-reaction tuples, run everything in parallel, and analyze the data at a fraction of the cost of a traditional supercomputer. We can render the results of our analyses using visualization tools that can be used by domain experts to explore relationships within our data that they might never have thought to look for. By dramatically reducing the costs of exploration and experimentation, we foster an environment that enables innovation and discovery.

3. Apps and Tools – Personal profiling and monitoring could be another area of focus for developers interested in cancer research or general health-related diagnosis.

There are lots of possibilities for personal solutions that aid in collective science.

“In lieu of spending a decade in training to become an oncologist, I have been able to put my skills to practical use.”, Jon says about the impact he’s making.

I really wish for many more technology enthusiasts to devote their time, skills and efforts in the fight against cancer. In what other ways can we help? Do share your comments and views.

Reverse Schlep Blindness

Ever insightful, Paul Graham, recently wrote about Schlep Blindness, a phenomenon related to overlooking hard and unpleasant problems:

Why work on problems few care much about and no one will pay for, when you could fix one of the most important components of the world’s infrastructure? Because schlep blindness prevented people from even considering the [difficult] idea of fixing payments [that Stripe is doing].

I completely agree with Paul. However, I also tend to think that there’s a reverse schlep blindness at play in a lot of cases. Some startup founders often subconsciously ignore or avoid problems that seem too simple to solve. They would rather work on complex problems, requiring complicated architectures, plethora of ‘cool’ technologies and ‘beautifully’ intricate code, all of which few care much about and no one will pay for. Maybe it’s another form of schlep, a cognitive bias after all.

Yet another mobile website builder? Too simple to be “ground breaking”. Yet another Web form builder? Too easy, I’ll look naive. Yet another cloud platform for developers? A VPS is enough and there’s Heroku for everything else. Yet another blogging platform? Boring, most use WordPress anyways. A bingo card creator? Naaa.

‘Too simple to do’ doesn’t mean that it’s easy to build, easy to sell and unfeasible as a business because one might think there aren’t any paying customers for it. Such markets are often overlooked and eventually existing competition suffers a slow death due to lack of innovation and new ideas.

Hard problems are good, because both good and bad solutions to those tedious problems will result in learning, eventual innovation and disruption. Simple problems are good too, because their execution will require a radical (yet simple) solution, and that’s hard to do in itself.