Think Probabilistically

August 11, 2021

One vital skill that everyone needs to develop is the ability to think in probabilities instead of certainties, to accept that the world is uncertain, but somewhat quantifiable.

Questions like “is it safe?” or “will it work?” should be replaced by “how safe is it?” and “how likely is it to work?” This makes life so much easier to understand.

Much of the hesitancy in COVID-19 vaccinations are premised on the idea that the vax is “not safe” or “doesn’t prevent infection”, but these statements only make sense in an absolutist world. In a probabilistic world, the questions become “what are the probabilities of side effects?” and “how much does it reduce the risk of infection?” and suddenly getting vaccinated makes a whole lot more sense.

Thinking in probabilities also enables you to understand how vaccines, masks, lockdowns, social distancing, etc. are layers of protection, that combine to reduce your risk of infection to a lower and lower number.

Thinking probabilistically also saves you from regret or blame if you draw a losing card: it’s nobody’s fault but the game’s. It really is a great tool for navigating life. Focus on the improving the odds, not hoping for certainty.

Liza Loop and the Apple 1, Serial Number One

August 8, 2021

Liza Loop behind a lectern at Computer History Museum. The Apple 1 serial number 1 board is displayed beside her.

I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Liza Loop of LO*OP Center today and spend some 20 minutes personally chatting with her, courtesy of the Vintage Computer Festival at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Liza is one of the early pioneers of using computers in US secondary education, and getting personal computers into the hands of the public.

What you see next to Liza in the image above is an Apple 1 board, Serial Number One. It was given by Steve Wozniak to Ms Loop in 1976. It’s a priceless artifact now and an important part of computing history.

Here’s my retelling of the story Liza Loop told about the Apple 1. It is a combination of the contents of her talk, and other details that she related to me in our conversation. You can find other similar accounts online if you search for her name.

The story

In 1975, after opening the LO*OP Center (Learning Options * Open Portal, a public access computer center), Liza Loop, then a math teacher at Windsor Junior High School, was interested in finding ways to bring computer literacy into high schools.

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Seek Independent Evaluation of Your Work

May 27, 2021

When evaluating your own work, seek independent evaluation and be ready to learn from others. Consciously choose to use criteria other than “but that’s the way I like it” to determine if your implementation has merit.

You don’t have to accept all suggested changes, but I’ve never had an occasion where I end up making zero changes due to critique.

Try to use more-objective criteria such as “performance”, “idiomatic implementation”, and “interoperability with other components”. They tend to stand the test of time vs emotional or trendy directions.

If you have a team, enlist the help of one or two trusted colleagues to whom you report your progress regularly instead of going into the weeds on your own. Having a tether to your team’s zeitgeist helps warn you if you’re off on a potentially contradictory tangent.

Don’t say it’s crazy

May 24, 2021

I’ve decided to start watching my language and stop using words that imply that there is a clear line between sanity and insanity. I will try to stop the casual use of words like “crazy”, “insane”, “nuts”, “loony”, etc., instead substituting more descriptive words like “ridiculous”, “nonsensical”, “irrational”, or other adjectives.

In my 22+ years of work in the computing industry and in social life, I’ve met SO many people who have admitted to some measure of mental illness: Asperger’s/autism spectrum, ADHD, anxiety or panic disorders, depression (so much depression), and many more. In fact, I run into people with some amount of mental illness SO REGULARLY that it seems like it’s just a part of being human.

I’m not a mental health professional, but my understanding is that mental health, just like physical health, is a continuum: we are not simply either ill or not ill; we all have some characteristics of health and illness. We go through bouts of good times and bad, and we develop skills and behaviors to compensate for our weaknesses. (I’d appreciate if my friends who ARE mental health professionals would correct me if I’m mistaken!)

In any case, I hope that by using less-judgmental language I can help to continue decreasing the ridiculous (see what I did there) social stigma against mental illness, and encourage more people to get help without feeling persecuted. I hope you will join me in doing the same.

Luck and Striking it Rich

February 14, 2021

Saw this thread on twitter about career paths and payoffs that caught my attention:

Threadreader link

If you want to extract the maximum amount of payoff from your tech career path, that is probably quite a profitable path.


What’s missing from this discussion is the role that luck plays in this game. Sure, joining fast-growing companies early is a grand strategy, but how do you spot one of those? And what if you’re wrong? Would you accept years of minimum salary and worthless stock options?

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