Welcome to the IdeaMatt blog!

My rebooted blog on ... who knows. Feel free to get in touch with me if you have thoughts, questions, or want to get involved. Cheers! -- matt

Wednesday
May182011

The best worst hobby

(Here's a fun little story I thought I'd take a chance and share. I hope you enjoy it. -- matt)

Vertibird1

If you ask around about having a hobby, many people will say it's a good idea. Dig further and I bet you find that 90% don't have one themselves - too busy. There is plenty of advise on the web about they're being beneficial, though (develops the brain, relieves stress, are fun, etc.) - such as Importance of hobby and Benefits Of Having A Hobby. As an adult I've never had one, but a recent slump got me thinking about starting one. (I mountain bike but that doesn't count. Here's a riddle: What's the difference between a sport and a hobby? One makes you get plumper the more you do it ;-) I wanted a challenge, and I've always been fond of helicopters (probably influenced by having a VertiBird as a kid), so I thought I'd jump into remote control models. The story reads like a drug habit.

mcx2-EFLH2400-GAL11

I bought a Blade mCX2 RTF (a tiny hobby-grade coaxial heli complete with batteries, charger, and transmitter - AKA "Ready To Fly") and absolutely loved it. (Amazon link here.) These are hobby grade ones that are far better than the inexpensive toys you can find at big box stores (more fun, more durable, and finer control).

phoenix-stockholm_outrage550BIGI absolutely loved it. Zipping around our kitchen, practicing different orientations (tail-in, nose-in, side-in), precision landings, and staging rescues - great fun. At the same time my brother and I decided to buy the Phoenix RC flight simulator. As a Mac user I had to upgrade Boot Camp, buy and install Windows, then install Phoenix. Not for the faint of heart, but I was motivated. The graphics and physics are stunning, we play online at night, and it's a hoot, not to mention a comfortable way to stay in touch.

After lots of research, I decided to take the plunge and buy a full collective pitch helicopter, and here's where we get into my title. "CP" helis are:

  • Complex machines,
  • extremely difficult to fly (100 hours on the simulator before I could do it confidently),
  • expensive, and
  • easy to break.

blade-400-EFLH1400-ACT5

Needless to say, it's not for everyone. It's also why you'll see one helicopter pilot for every dozen or so airplane ones. You'll know the former by the tears. I again decided on RTF, this time a Blade 400.

Flying these is exhilarating and frightening. The sound they make spinning up usually causes your taking a few steps back, and controlling one is a rush. All that simulator work paid off, but it was still hard to control, and I crashed it twice (the first on only my fifth flight), which moved me from the hobby's challenge of flying to the the inevitable need to learn how to repair them. Again, not for the faint of heart. Fast forward two more crashes and painful, expensive repairs, and I know had the RC heli bug pretty bad, leading to my next step of...

trex-450-kx015074_1... buying an ALIGN T-REX 450 Pro Super Combo. This is the industry standard for high-performance CP helis, and comes as a kit. Putting it together was another major challenge (it took me two weeks, lots of tools, and many mistakes lessons), but I got it together and set up, and amazingly - it flew! I had my new helicopter friend John fly it for me, and what a reward seeing the result of transforming a box of 200+ parts into a mechanical marvel. A very important side benefit is the feeling of a tangible, relatively short term success, especially with a string of multi-year challenges and struggles under my belt.

I had my first destined crash of my T-rex yesterday, and the Blade 400 is still on the bench, but that thrill of flying keeps me going. To be in control of one of these good-sized "birds" zipping past me is such a thrill that it makes me actually giggle a tiny bit, and that's a gift. They're expensive, complex, and difficult machines, but I'm hooked. A few success factors are having a local hobby shop (yes they still exist), getting to know local people who fly rc helicopters (I discovered the old-school activity of rc flying clubs - definitely a new experience for me), and utilizing the many smart and helpful folks in online forums. I'm fortunate to have been able to try this hobby, for which I'm profoundly grateful.

I'm curious

  • Do you have a hobby?
  • What is it, and what's your story?
  • If not, what's holding you back? In my case it took some searching before I found something that sucked me in. In fact my 10 year old daughter suggested I look through our library's non-fiction section for inspiration, which worked.
Monday
May162011

Personal Development, Self-Experiments, and the Future of Search

[Cross-posted to Quantified Self]

Confusing Traffic Sign, Boston MA We experiment on ourselves and track the results to improve the way we work, our health, and our personal lives. This rational approach is essential because there are few guarantees that what works for others will work for us. Take the category of sleep, for example. Of the hundreds of tinctures and techniques available, clearly not all help everyone, or there would be exactly one title in the sleep section of your bookstore, called "Sleep," and no one could argue about its effectiveness. Treating these improvements experimentally, however, requires a major shift in thinking.

But being human isn't that simple. There are variables and confounding factors that mean you have to take matters actively into your hands if you want to really know what's personally effectual. That's why what we do here is so exciting. Instead of accepting common sense, we take a "prove it to me" approach and work to find out for ourselves. Operating from this basis, rather than faith, is more effective in the long run. (It's why we use science to understand the world, rather than astrology or phrenology, for example. Just look at what we've accomplished.)

As I tried to say in Making citizen scientists, this is heralding a move from citizens-as-helpers to true citizen scientists - people who get genuinely curious about something and decide to test things out for themselves, rather than simply trusting what others say will work. If we expand that vision five or ten years in the future, I think there could be a major shift in how we search for ways to improve ourselves, and that's what I want to share here.

Picture that you have something you're trying to change, and you want to find starting points, especially what's worked for others. Ideally you know someone who can point you in the right direction (medical professionals come to mind), but rarely do our social and professional circles cover everything we want to improve. Normally we are on our own, and must sit down and courageously cast ourselves into the vast sea of the web. What do we find? An insane number of hits mysteriously organized by clever algorithms. Again, take sleep. My search for insomnia yielded over three million hits. How do we decide how to use these results? I think the fundamental issue is of trust. How can I trust what I read if there is nothing backing it up? Google is great for some things, but for self-improvement, what I want isn't necessarily what's popular (let's face it, the popular kids at school weren't necessarily the smartest - spoken from experience). What I want is something that's a reasonable starting point. That is, something that has a high likelihood of yielding useful information that moves me quickly in a helpful direction. (My scientific colleague calls this exploring the "search frontier.")

Instead, what we have is a immense collection of definitions, blog posts, news articles, how to's, marketing literature, product reviews, fringe nuttiness, and the like. In other words, a Wild West of self-improvement. Exciting, dangerous, risky, unproven, and loaded with potential.

What's closer to what we want are the discussion board threads and blog comment exchanges where people shared what they tried and what has and hasn't worked. After a quick search, two examples that came up in the sleep realm are at talk about sleep and iVillage. However, we have three problems. First, my search for insomnia discussion boards still generated almost three million hits. That means we don't know where the quality work is taking place. Second, and far worse, is that the way people have gone about their search for solutions is rarely principled. This is because applying a scientific approach to self-help, as I tried to explain above, is still rare. (Want to test that? Just try to tell someone why you're reading this site, and watch the confusion on his face. "You're tracking what? But WHY?") With questionable methodologies come questionable results. Finally, if there truly are well-run experiments, they are scattered throughout the site on various threads, the data is not likely in a form we can analyze, and it's very hard to find who else has tried the experiments and what they discovered. In other words, the knowledge, experiences, and results of everyone's hard work isn't structured or centralized. And that's a massive waste. personal-informatics-venn-diagram

Now imagine that there is a community of self-experimentation tools that meet the three characteristics I outlined in my experiment-driven life talk (my original post is here): Broad, Social, and Scientific. On these sites will be records of millions of past and in-progress experiments being performed daily by thousands of citizen scientists, both individually and collectively. They will be structured to expose what folks did specifically, how the process went for them (in some ways as important as results themselves), what the data was, and how they interpreted it. And they will have targeted search tools to find experiments in a variety of ways - topic, treatment type, ratings, etc.

Visualize yourself going to one of those sites and searching folks' work for your topic. Assuming they're structured reasonably, you could find something marvelous: Actual personal experiments, around your situation, with their data and conclusions. Wow! This should allow you to get a summary view of the things people have tried, who else tried it, and what they learned. In other words, it would be a data-driven entry to deciding what I should start trying.

Ultimately, I envision this moving towards a kind of personal development "general store" where instead of facing an intimidatingly large self-help section in your bookstore (i.e., the big-box help-yourself model), you come to a desk with one person sitting and asking, "How can I help?" You tell her your topic and a little about yourself, then ask for advice. The clerk, who has read all of the books on the subject, answers, "For someone like you, the most effective experiments were ..." and lists five or six to look at. I think of it as a kind of intelligent, experiment-based search engine that factors in personal data, demographics, and topic (maybe as simple as keywords, for starters) and serves up ballpark suggestions.

What do you think? My ideas are still developing, so this is still a little rough, but I honestly believe we could build such an ecosystem. Are you with me?

Tuesday
May032011

Still alive :-)

Day of the Dead #3 / Día de los Muertos #3

Just a quick note to say yes, I'm still kicking. Going through a bit of a reality-check re: where I am with Think, Try, Learn and Edison, and I'm brainstorming some options for funding them. Now that I've had an anti-burnout reset, I'd welcome a situation in programming, especially if something exciting comes up. I'm also open to other work that involves research, thinking, and writing, say in technology, engineering, or the QS tool realm. I'd welcome your suggestions and pointers to possible opportunities.

Let me leave you with a few quotes.

You could never be bored when you confronted mystery.

From The Burning Wire: A Lincoln Rhyme Novel (I'm a sucker for Jeffery Deaver's work). Everything seems stupid when it fails. -- Fydor Dostoevsky, from Crime and Punishment (free download here).

Everything seems stupid when it fails.

From Fydor Dostoevsky's from Crime and Punishment (free download here).

Wednesday
Apr202011

2011-04-20: They did WHAT?

Test Tube Terrarium

Quick links from the past week of experiments in the World Wide Lab

The best way to learn is to experiment and fail, says Michael Dell. The idea that failure is a necessary part of success is a common idea, but that doesn't mean it's easy or accepted. I like his thought, though:

I think the best learning comes from actually doing things and experimenting, and failing quickly, and small experiments. It's certainly how our company got started. ... It's not always easy and doesn't always work, but that's how the system works.

Two other useful posts on the topic are from HBR: Failure Isn't Enough and Failing Toward Success at Google.

In Food experiments: Sharing recipes online brings new flavors, the author shares one person's journey into vegetarian cooking. Trying new recipes, and variations within them, is a tried-and-true platform for experimenting. Two cases I've come across are not having the right ingredients, and accidents, such as adding the wrong thing or cooking too long.

Experiment: Turning Blogs Into A Kindle Book covers a very clever experiment where the author "took about 100 of my blog posts, bundled them as a PDF, and submitted them to the Kindle Store." He charged $2.99 (a price break point where Amazon's take drops from 70% to 30%). I very much like the idea of using platforms like the Kindle store to do quick experiments like this. The pattern is come up with something relatively easy to test, decide what you'll test, put it up, and learn from the results. It's too early for results, but what do you think about it? Have you tried anything similar?

Cube Project Is A 97 Square Foot Psychology Experiment describes the idea behind Mike Page's Cube Project at the University of Hertfordshire. The gist:

build a compact home, no bigger than 3x3x3 metres on the inside, in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment

I like that he's studying possible behavioral changes that result. Anyone want to give it a go?

The brief story Demand-based parking fees to start in San Francisco made me wonder about the value of such experiments, when reducing the use of cars in general seems more the point. Small steps, I suppose. What would you experiment with to get people to drive less?

The author of Nuclear experiment is a failure says "The biggest and main problem is that nuclear power is still in the experimental stage." Is nuclear power an experiment? If so, what are we measuring?

In the article Study Looks at 'Forbidden Fruit' Hypothesis we learn about a University of Kentucky study that tested the "forbidden fruit hypothesis:"

"If the circumstances or situation implicitly limit a person's attention to an attractive alternative, that alternative suddenly becomes 'forbidden fruit.'"

The answers supported the forbidden fruit theory: "Those whose attention to look at the attractive picture was controlled answered that they were less satisfied in their relationships and had a more positive outlook on infidelity." How could we use this to structure our environments to dissuade (or support) this behavior?

The author of Social experiment: Know thy neighbor shares the results of his reaching out to get to know people around him. I love personal social experiments like this, and I work to try them regularly. What strikes me is that doing this could be considered a kind of experiment in the first place (I think it is). It speaks to our long-distance and thin social connections, I think. I'm curious: How well do you know your neighbors?

Finally, in the category of "Try something extreme for a year and then write a book about it," Comedy and caveats in new book 'The Great Fitness Experiment' talks about Charlotte Andersen's book, The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything. Other examples include Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. What I appreciate about these books is, beyond the fun stories, of course, is the inspiration to try something new, along with experiment ideas. Have you read the book? Any others in this category that you like?

Wednesday
Apr202011

"This isn't working"

DSCN1866An integral part of treating life as an experiment is being willing to face the facts, especially when something you're trying isn't working. This is hard for me because I'm often attached emotionally to the experiment, and want it to work out as-is. However, reality doesn't always (often?) match our expecatations, so we have to be flexible.

For example, right now I'm taking a close look at Edison to see what people need from it, and what it takes to get it to stick. If I'm attached to it as it stands, then I suffer because I don't want to change. However, if I remind myself that it's a work in progress, then I can more easily ask how it's going (based on data) and what needs to change. Ideally I'll find a small thing that would yield a big improvement, or at least yield more targeted information.

How about you? Anything you're trying that you need to ask, "Is this working?"