Monthly Archives: September 2009

Big numbers and visualization #

Go here first. Then come back. I’ll wait.

The trouble with talking about government budgets, even ones as small as a city or local school district, is that big numbers rapidly lose meaning to people. It’s more visceral to talk about a dozen people (or dollars or “things”) than to discuss a million of then. Big numbers are hard to visualize.

Take dictionaries for example. Without peeking, is 10,000 words a good dictionary? What about 20,000? How many words are there in a typical collegiate dictionary? Take a guess before looking at the answer.

You’ve heard the politicians say it (and it’s true): “A million here, a million there and pretty soon we’re talking real money.” One of the ways I try to make the number a bit more “real” is to estimate how many people could be employed at a particular job for that amount. Try it. How many professional workers (between $50,000–60,000 annual salary) can be employed in government jobs for $1M? (My answer.)

John Gruber linked to a blog called Information is Beautiful, highlighting an impressive infographic comparing budget numbers in the billions. (The same link that starts this post. Once there, click the graphic to see how the data was sourced, along with viewer comments.) Go see it!

How would government change if budget committees published these numbers visually instead of numerically?

1. Dictionaries

Chances are, if you guessed how many words are in a dictionary, you anchored around the numbers I listed above (e.g., 20,000). The number is way too low! At less than two inches thick, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th) boasts 10,000 new words in the most recent edition, bringing its total to more than 225,000 definitions. Even the tiny Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, a 7 x 4.2 x 1.6 inch paperback, has more than 40,000 words. (^ top)

2. One million dollars

These are rough back-of-the-napkin numbers. YMMV. At $50K salary/year, a company is responsible for an additional $4K in FICA and other taxes. The large non-salary chunk is benefits, which for many government positions the employer pays the lion’s share. If we low-ball the number at $1K/month for a family plan, that’s an additional $12K/year (running total=$66K/year). Throw in a computer workstation (replaced every three years; less often in gov’t), software, tech support, utilities, renting the office space, custodial, parking, worker’s compensation, and who knows what else, and a very low cost estimate (read: wild guess) might be another $5K/year. (running total = $71K/year) And I’m not factoring in 401-K contributions or pension liability, which will probably add another 10% to our figure. (Less for defined contribution plans.) Tack on another 5% to build in a margin of error (total = $75K/year), and one million dollars employs just over 13 people. A baker’s dozen.

Thirteen is not very many—not even enough to add just one employee to every elementary school in Provo, Utah. That figure drops to 10 people if we create higher paying jobs and offer a $60K/year salary. (^ top)

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Federal judge ignores rights of individual #

Via Gruber, who posts following a TechDirt article.

A federal judge denies an individual of property (contents of an email account) without notification, with no opportunity for appeal (the person is not a party to the matter), and with no cause to suspect wrongdoing.

Saith Gruber, who dubs U.S. District Court Judge James Ware “Jackass of the Week”:

This is absurd:

  1. Rocky Mountain Bank emailed confidential financial information to the wrong Gmail address./li>
  2. The bank attempts to force Google to release the name of the owner of the email address. Google refuses without court order.
  3. Federal judge James Ware orders Google to disable the email account — which belongs to someone who did nothing wrong and was sent the email message by mistake.

John Gruber, “Jackass of the Week: U.S. District Court Judge James Ware”, Daring Fireball. Accessed 2009-09-25

I think the post from Technologizer stabs at the root issue, though:

The temptation to heap scorn upon District Court Judge James Ware is obvious, but I’m most appalled by the reported initial actions of Rocky Mountain Bank. Why was anyone there e-mailing Social Security numbers to anyone?“Rocky Mountain Bank: Rocky, Rocky Security!” by Harry McCracken. Accessed 2009-09-25, emphasis added

It’s a good question. Why would any company ever allow sensitive information be sent through an unencrypted medium? Back up a step, though: Under any sane security policy, how could an individual even acquire a list of social security numbers on their desktop in the first place?

UPDATE (2009-09-28): Techdirt reports that Google and the bank have both requested the judge reinstate the account.

Books worth their weight in gold #

For years, I’ve kept a personal (and unfortunately, unwritten) list of books I think every manager, programmer, and [insert category here] should read.

A book every programmer should read

The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. Every programmer I hired was required to read this book. It’s a great resource for people managing programmers too. The book is entirely language agnostic, and focuses on how programmers do (or should) think and work. Most programming books do an adequate job of covering syntax, but few actually address the process of programming. My collegiate programming classes typically expected me to already know the syntax and focused more on the theory of the system, but they too offered little advice on how to actually program. This book, more than any other I’ve found, fills those gaps.

This book was so unlike most technical books, the authors went on to start their own publishing house for programming books. (I was fortunate to be a technical reviewer for one of them.) All of their books that I’ve tried thus far have been of high quality.

Another excellent (but less essential) read for programmers is Head First Design Patterns. The book’s example are in Java, but are easily adapted to other languages.

A book every technical manager should read

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. It covers everything from productivity to working conditions and incentives, and explains why programmers are different from “regular” folk. The advice here can be easily applied to all technical and knowledge workers. Highly recommended. Slack, also by DeMarco (which I think is a more recent rendering of some of the same concepts) is on my “to read” list—when I finally get around to finishing it, I’ll comment on it as well.

Two books every manager should read

Influencer, by Kerry Patterson. This book changed the way I think about organizational issues. It begins with the incredible premise that social problems can be addressed by leveraging a single behavior, then delivers example after monumental example demonstrating—with step-by step instructions—how true it can be. From eliminating a parasite in remote Africa, to quelling an AIDS epidemic, to more local and mundane organizational or personal problems, Influencer details in easy language why so many transformation efforts fail, and what to do about it.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins. Despite criticisms I’ve heard from a couple of academic researchers calling it “junk science,” this book is used in many highly ranked MBA programs, and made rounds at several organizations I’ve worked with, including Utah state government. Collins examines the differences between companies that were extraordinarily successful year after year (as measured by stock price) and those that hovered near the industry average. It is an interesting look at many factors that shape the success of organizations.

More worthwhile books

Blink, by Malcolm Galdwell. The book is an easy to read and incredibly fascinating exploration of how we think and, despite our best intentions, are affected by biases. I’m surprised at how often anecdotes and insight from this book were relevant during my MBA courses. If you like Blink and want a more academic and in-depth treatment, I’ve found Judgement in Managerial Decision Making to be similarly facinating.

Once an Eagle, by Anton Myrer. A fictional account of two soldiers spanning most the greatest wars of the 20th century. Through the characters, the author explores the ethics of leadership. I’ve heard it rumored (but don’t know for certain) that this book is required reading at some of the U.S. military academies. An excellent—although lengthy—read.

Others I’ve found worthwhile include:

Is there something else that should be on the list?

On power users #

As I was driving in to school this morning, I had a mini-revalation on the difference between power-users and “regular” users. This thought may have been spawned by a research paper used in one of my classes [1], where power users became the de facto trainers during the implementation of an ERP system.

Maybe this is too obvious. You’ve probably already thought of it. Here it is anyway: Power users are comfortable experimenting with their system; other users are not.


On the face, it may seem that it’s the incredible knowledge or experience, not willingness to experiment, that separates power users. But isn’t it experimentation (and, likely, troubleshooting) that precedes experience?

I think back to my time in high school. I had a 2400 baud modem, and no internet connection. There was no Googling for answers, just a few local dial-in bulletin board systems. It wasn’t easy to access specialists, so solving computer problems could be laborious process. Experimentation was inevitable. This, perhaps, led to exploring (read: tweaking, and in one instance, destabilizing) more than one school computer by prying open its operating system with ResEdit and changing system icons, dialogs, and messages.

Contrast this with how my father approched computers years ago: with copious notes and detailed step-by-step instructions. (Whatever level of detail you’re imagining his notes might have been like, double that a couple of times, and you’ll be closer.) With time his comfort level increased, and slowly, so did his willingness to try new things. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to truly call him a power user (except maybe with his geneology software), but over the past fifteen years he has certain gone from “etreme novice” to “competent.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was offering an acquaintance some one-on-one computer tutoring. She and her husband had done me a very significant favor (saving me several hundred dollars), so it was the least I could do. She had purchased a computer on a whim about a year ago, but wasn’t comfortable using it. I showed her the simple things: how to open her email, how to move windows around, how to close windows, etc. I knew I had my work cut out for me when, after I’d asked her to send her first email, she queried, “How do I make capital letters?” As I look back on the experience, I think the most important advice someone in her position could receive is to not be afraid to experiment.

What it means for design

When designing a good interface, it’s often good practice to create multiple ways of accomplishing common tasks. Toolbar buttons, menu commands, keyboard shortcuts, and context menus all provide different paths to the same funcionality.

More important though, is the awesome power of Undo. It makes the system safer, which makes it more likely to be used. It also encourages users to safely experiment—which is what they really need to do in order to understand software.


Boudreau, Marie-Claude, and Daniel Robey, “Enacting Integrated Information Technology: Inertia, Improvised Learning and Reinvention,” Organization Science, 16 (1), 2005, 3-18. ^

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Two positive customer service stories: Men’s Wearhouse & Little Things Mean a Lot #

I’ve written before about some excruciatingly poor customer service experiences. The web is a great platform for it. But, I don’t think we share great experiences often enough.

Picture of TobinAbout a year ago, we were shopping for a white suit for our little Tobin. It was a painfully morose thing: we were looking for something to bury him in. He’d not yet passed, but every day was more difficult and it was clearly imminent. It’s the sort of thing that is made markedly easier by doing it beforehand, although you’d rather not do it at all.

If you’ve lived in Utah (or Provo, in particular), you know there is no shortage of “white clothing” stores, selling white suits, dresses, veils, tuxedos, belts, shoes, or anything else you could ever want to wear that is white. Except no one seemed to have anything sized for a three-year-old.

We visited three or four specialty stores and the LDS distribution center; the only thing we found was a white jumpsuit. On a whim, we stopped by Men’s Wearhouse (in Orem, on the corner of University Pkwy and State St). The sales-people there know me, as I do much of my shopping there. We explained what we were looking for. They didn’t have anything his size, but suggested several places we might look. We’d visited each of them. The salesman then asked if it would be alright for him to call around to other stores. We agreed, and gave him my cell phone number.

Across the parking lot there was (yet another) white clothing store. They didn’t have anything in stock, but had a (frilly) tuxedo in his size that they could bring down from another store. After looking at a similar one in a different size, it was clear the tuxedo was much too flashy given the solemnity of our purpose.

While we were there, the gentleman at Men’s Wearhouse called—he and another worker had been scouring the phone book, and suggested a couple of other places we might try. We thanked him for his work, but we’d already visited the places he was suggesting.

Fifteen minutes later, he called again. After dialing every listing he could find, he had tracked down a store in American Fork called Little Things Mean a Lot, which not only had a suit in the right size, but was holding it for us.

When we arrived at Little Things Mean a Lot, the salesperson there expressed her condolences, and showed us the suit (which was waiting at the front). It was perfect. Clean, simple, and white. She said she’d spoken with the manager before we arrived, and given the nature of our circumstances had agreed to offer us a discount. We were grateful and impressed, and ended up buying suits for our other children as well, in part because the service was so good.

As a customer, I’m not afraid to boycott a company for lousy service, or support a local company that’s filling a local need. It’s experiences like this that make me a customer for life. I wish more companies were like these two.

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Apps broken in Snow Leopard #

I recently updated to OS X 10.6, Snow Leopard. I’m liking it—most things feel a little bit snappier. I also prefer the tweaks to editing events in iCal (which didn’t go far enough; 10.4 was better), and the changes to Exposé.

However, several apps (or “hacks,” if you prefer) broke with the update:

  • WindowShadeX, a better minimizer. Unsanity isn’t talking, so no one knows whether this will ever be fixed.
  • Megazoomer, because I use a laptop (with a small screen) and the full-screen functionality in just doesn’t cut it. (And OS X’s default “Zoom” behavior—the green button—is downright silly in Actually, Megazoomer still works, just not in 64-bit applications like Safari and Preview, my two most common use cases. The SIMBL library Megazoomer uses has been updated for Snow Leopard, so I wonder whether re-compiling Megazoomer in 64-bit might solve the problem.
  • DeliciousSafari. The developer is working on a fix.
  • SafariBlock. I was missing this one (partial functionality is restored by setting Safari to run in 32-bit), but I found GlimmerBlocker, and prefer it so far. Instead of working as a plugin, it intercedes itself as a proxy server, so it works for all browsers and is unaffected by browser updates. GlimmerBlocker can URL rewrite, and can also modify incoming HTML, Javascript, and CSS (and thus was the solution to an unrelated problem I was working on).
  • Visor. The suggested workaround is to modify the application settings to run in 32-bit.

And most surprising of all (not a hack!):

  • Parallels 3.0. If I had known about this one, I might not have upgraded. I’m not terribly pleased with Parallels (sloooow), but switching now would require re-installing Windows and dealing with the registration—which won’t work automatically because I’ve reinstalled it on the same machine a couple of times, so the license key is reported as “already in use.” If I decide switching is worth the trouble, I’m tempted to try the free VirtualBox.

UPDATE (12 Sep):The developer of DeliciousSafari has just sent me a beta of his newest Snow Leopard compatible version. Seems to be working well so far.

UPDATE (13 Sep): A Snow Leopard compatible version of DeliciousSafari has been released.

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