The Automated Store – The Plan

Update: See this page on Learneroo.

This is a the first post in a story about a mad engineer and the machine-framework he created in the early 1900′s. Any resemblance to modern frameworks, living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

Dr. Victor Hanson was a brilliant mathematician and engineer, though a tad crazy. He had invented a machine that could perform various calculations, but it had not sold well, and anyways he wanted to create something more ambitious. He decided to take out an ad in a newspaper to see if anyone needed his services:


Jim Blackford had been running his store without too much problems for some time, but he was getting a bit bored dealing with the same tasks every day.  He wished he had some way to automate some of these processes. One day, when reading the paper, he noted an interesting ad…

A week later, in a restaurant in New York:

Blackford: Dr. Hanson, I presume?

Hanson: Yes, nice to meet you. I can now tell you about my automated machine services. I built machines that can calculate and tabulate numbers, but I’m thinking of branching out into other areas. What kind of machine do you need?

Blackford: I’m tired of dealing with the same manual tasks while running my store. It would be nice if a machine could just take over various operations for me. Though I’m not sure how that would be possible considering our pre-digital age and all.

Hanson: Nothing to worry about, I cans create analogue machines.  Now what specific requirements do you need in your machine?

Blackford: Well it would be nice if I could receive some automated help  to keep track of all inventory, process transactions, display brochures to customers, and maybe hand them products from higher shelves too.

Hanson: Wo, not so fast! Let’s focus on the most essential features you need first and later we can iterate on that. What is the most basic important thing you are looking for when shopping for automated store-running machines?

Blackford: I guess some way to keep track of all my inventory.

Hanson: OK, so let’s focus on that. What exactly do you want the machine to do?

Blackford: Well, I want to keep track of my inventory. So I guess it should let me create inventory records and store them well. The I should be able to access them at any time to read them, update them, or delete them. And it should keep track of how much inventory I have, and let me modify that when I get a new delivery or sell an item.

Hanson: Crud, that’s a lot of work. But me and my assistant can get started on building that machine. We’ll keep you posted on our progress…

Stay tuned for the next post where Dr. Hanson builds a first version of his machine.

Lottery Ticket Investing

In a previous post, I listed a bunch of Startup Ideas, but I didn’t go into any details about them. In this post I will discuss one of the ideas – Lottery-ticket investing. I decided to start from one of the less realistic ideas, so I can move to more realistic ones in later posts. While writing this post, I realized there were even more issues than I initially thought.

Q: So why are you publishing it?

Well I thought it might still have some potential somewhere, and I can use a Q&A format to discuss its issues. And it touches on some questions in economics and psychology.

Lottery-Ticket Investing

Problem: People buy lottery tickets despite the poor odds, i.e. their negative expected return. They do this because they’re excited by the prospect of large winnings, and may not evaluate the odds correctly. But there should be some way to let them get tickets that offer a large prize, but still have an overall positive return.

Solution: Create an Investment Lottery: Invest the lottery ticket money in stocks, which historically have a strong positive return. Use a investing method with high-voltaility so there is a chance of large payouts.

Q: But how would you distribute the money?

One way would be to have an actual lottery at the end of the investment period and give the money to specific winners. However, this is too similar to a regular lottery, so the state governments wouldn’t allow it. Instead, one could give the actual returns of each ticket to the buyer. This way people who get or pick the right tickets can win big.

Q: So you’re basically just selling people stocks.

Yes, these tickets would let people easily invest small sums in a high-risk but high-reward manner.

Q: That sounds pretty boring.

It’s true that people are motivated to buy because of the hope of getting a huge prize, but people also buy tickets for smaller prizes. So one would need to examine where the cut-off would be. For example, people might be willing to pay $10 for a ticket that could potentially win $1000. If they here about one winner who won a huge prize, they might get excited enough by that possibility, even if it rarely happens.

Q: But how would you ever get 100x returns on investments in a short time-span?

There are a number of possibilites that one could explore. Perhaps there’s some way to do it with margin-investing, or with some variety of that. For example, the lottery stock tickets could insure other investors against losses, so the ticket-holders take larger losses or bigger gains if the stock has a large change. This will let the ticket-holders magnify their risk and provide insurance to safe investors.

Q: That doesn’t sound like a very good idea, and people can insure against losses without any lottery involved, e.g. by buying put options.

OK, so that idea might have some flaws. But there are risky investments that one could find, such as certain junk bonds. In addition, it will soon be legal for ordinary people to invest in small companies. They could serve as a very-high risk investment that could have extremely good returns. By making it easy for people to buy “Investing Tickets”, they can be encouraged to invest in a system that has good overall returns instead of losing so much money in the lottery. While they might not make it rich this way, they’ll have better long-term odds than in the lotto.

A Map of Resources for Learning Ruby

My previous chart of resources to learn programming was well-received, but some people suggested additional resources. I decided I would try a new format to display more resources for learning programming. It is a map of different resources, which are ordered from left to right based on experience. You can choose a resource from each vertical, and then move to the right as you gain experience. A sample path is shown in the image. It would be interesting to see how these kind of charts can be improved to quickly display relevant information about each item. Click on the image below get a clickable image map, an SVG should be coming soon.

Map of ruby resources

Job Market for Programming Languages

One consideration when choosing a programming language is the demand in the job market for people who know that language. I did some searches on different job sites to see what skills are in demand. Below are the results from for jobs that tagged specific languages as skills. For more information, I created a Google Spreadsheet with job data from different websites.

Java is used extensively in big companies, so it has the most results. Javascript is the only language of front-end development, so it takes the second spot. PHP is clearly less popular than it used to be, while Python and Ruby vary by website.

Startup Ideas

Paul Graham recently wrote a post about How to Get Startup Ideas, so I figured I’d write about a couple of startup ideas. This post list some of them in a couple of words, and later I’ll pick a few to write about in more detail.

Education & Content:
This is an area that many are working on to change (finally), but there’s still a lot that can be done.

  • Platform for creating interactive educational content.
  • New platform for publishing general content
  • Bootcamps for learning technical topics
  • Programming for the masses

Replacing Intermediaries:
Before the internet, it was necessary to have various intermediaries involved in transactions. The internet has changed that for many things (e.g. buying airline tickets), but some areas remain stubborn to change (e.g. cars or houses). There are various ways certain industries can be brought up-to-date with the internet.

Better Search
Everything is search. It’s not what you know, but what you can search for that counts.

  • A Better meta-search?
  • Better Website searches
  • Integrating search and actions within applications
  • Tracking everything you read or learn for later ‘recall’

The Internet has changed how we buy things, but made everything more complex. People need help getting what’s best for them at the best price.

  • Finding the best deals quickly
  • Reliable data-based reviews
  • Chipping away at Craigslist…
  • Crowd-sourced startups
  • Alternative Wikipedia
  • Lottery-ticket Investing
  • Computer-aided productivity

Mathematica, Bing vs Google, Web Hosts

Mathematica 9
just came out and it has a bunch of new features, such as a suggestions bar which helps you perform various actions after you enter a query, and support for units, like “centimeters and gigabytes”. I think math education should make much greater use of computers, and Mathematica is the most powerful tool to do so. In addition, it has many beginner-friendly features, such as the ones above or the ability to enter input in English if you don’t know the Mathematica syntax for something. Perhaps math education should be based on figuring out how to turn real-world problems into a format Mathemtica can understand.

Mathematica Suggestion Bar

Bing vs. Google 
A while ago Google changed their shopping search from being free like their regular search to paid-only inclusion, like PriceGrabber and Nextag.  Microsoft just launched a campaign against Google, calling them Scroogle. It attacks Google for not stating more prominently that the results are paid, and that they even partially base their sorting by how much much a merchant pays.

I don’t know if it’s such a big deal. Google Shopping used to be filled with all sorts of low-quality sites, and now it’s much easier for them to keep it high-quality. However, they have lost Amazon from their results, which makes a pretty big difference. Also, it would be better for the user to not factor in pay when you initially display an item. They don’t seem to do that though for a general search, and for a more specific one, you can always sort by price, which wasn’t useful when they had low-quality results.

Web Hosts
I made a couple of small changes to the Web Host chart, including adding another free static web host. More of those services should be coming out soon with the announcement of Google Drive support for web publishing. To keep on top of updates and add additional details, I created a Webpage version of my web host guide. This should be the one-page stop for people to find the right web host.

The Zappable Guide to Finding a Web Host

See the updated guide at Choosing a Web Host.

I decided to update the Zappable Guide to Finding a Web Host. This guide is intended for a newbie who is would like to find out about different hosting options, though I think others can find helpful stuff here too. Most people just Google for information and get results based on SEO instead of what’s most helpful. While Google’s results have improved, you still won’t get a helpful review of the many different options possible. In the chart, I try to explore many different free options, and a couple of paid options too. (Note: I made some of the links into affiliate ones.)

The basic categories I explore are Static Hosting, Cloud Hosting, Cpanel hosting and regular dynamic hosting. I provide recommendations for in each category that I think are good and reliable. This chart should help people quickly find a good web host choice. If you want some more background info and specific details, see finding a web host. The chart is embedded below and a PDF is available here.

I created a webpage version of this chart, which will be able to contain more info and be updated more frequently. For example, see the Dreamhost coupons.

See the updated guide at Choosing a Web Host.

Google, Wireless & Posting Too Quickly

Yesterday, The Next Web and other tech blogs reported that Google had purchased a Wifi hotspot company for $400 million. I had written previously in SeekingAlpha about how Google might expand into wifi, so I quickly wrote another article on the topic based on the breaking news.  When I finished, I went back to check on updates and it turned out the whole story was false. The tech media wants to get out their story first, so they end up taking a “publish first, ask questions later approach”. I guess I did the same thing by relying on them.

Anyways, most of what I had written is still likely to apply in the future, so I edited my article and re-submitted it to SeekingAlpha. Might be a bit lame, but I think the basic points are true. The Big Cellular Carriers will face increased competition in the future from companies like Google or Dish Networks, and users will have more choice, either through cellular service or even wifi. Click on the article to find out more:


Writing with Less Writing

Ideas discussed:

  • People think all writing needs to be paragraphs, but that’s not always the best way to express something.
  • What’s the Appeal of Twitter? + Idea for new platform
  • At least include an outline in your article!
  • Bonus: What writing can learn from programming

My recent chart on learning programming did quite well and got upvoted on Hacker News and Reddit. I realized that one chart was able to encapsulate the important information from 3 previous blog posts. This makes me think there might be too much of a bias to write content in a specific form and style with paragraphs and connecting sentences, when sometimes another form would work better. A chart or diagram can display certain information in a faster and clearer manner than long paragraphs, making the paragraphs unnecessary. Different diagrams and styles can be used for different types of information.

Ways of presenting content

Content Format Good for this type of content Zappable Example Benefits for reader Extra stuff that get stuck in
Paragraphs of Text Long connected arguments Maybe Google and the Future of Search Easy linear read Connecting sentences, stylistic phrases
Table Repeated categories of information Resources to Learn Programming Fast to reference Certain cells just to match others in row. (Maybe use NoSQL-style instead ~)
Flowchart Simple decision guide Picking a Programming Language Can quickly reach relevant decisions Random Jokes
Outline-Style Hierarchical content of separate points Attempt below Can easily skip subsections Hopefully nothing

Even if content doesn’t fit into a chart, it does not mean that standard paragraphs are necessary. Sometimes an Outline-style could do the trick.

Outline vs. Paragraphs

  • I often start with ideas in note-form before writing a post
  • Before publishing notes, need to refine and clarify ideas.
  • Also includes “textification” into paragraphs, which consist of things like:
    • Keeping to a writing-style (varying words, paragraph format)
    • Putting in filler words to build and connect sentences
  • This turns writing into nice essay, but it can obscure points for both the writer and reader
    • It becomes harder for the writer to revise essay when each change affects the continuity of the sentences and paragraphs. (Maybe writers should also aim for looser coupling!)
    • Certain articles (e.g. academic ones) may be so complicated, readers may feel need to create their own outline or diagram to follow it
  • Notes need to be refined before being published, but they can still be kept in an outline style, with several benefits:
    • Often quicker to write than figuring out how to “textify” content.
    • Easier for reader to follow overall flow of argument
    • Lets reader skip certain sections or examples and still follow argument (In fact, maybe the reader should be able to understand the argument heading without even reading the implementation!)
  • Outline-style can be better for reader and writer, though not sure about this example

Obviously, people know that concise writing or charts are often helpful. However, I think people still feel constrained by standard style expectations. That’s why they need things like Twitter and even Powerpoint to permit them to write in shorter form.

While Twitter’s limits may be overkill in cases where you actually want to say something, the fact that its so successful shows the power of letting people get to the point. Maybe someone should create a blogging platform that enforces a posts that are concise and include a diagram, outline or chart. This could help popularize a new style of writing.

I’m not arguing for eliminating essay-style text, I just think it might be worth putting more outlines and charts within writing. Even if much of an article needs to be in paragraphs, perhaps some of it would be clearer or more effective as a chart. And more articles should come with short outlines (or diagrams) that says what their main points are. This would let people decide if they want to read it or review what it said afterwards. Why should some one need to construct their own outline or argument diagram to analyze an argument?

Charts and outlines are really just a minor step. For more challenging material, one can go beyond such static content and create more interactive content. But that’s for another post…

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Education, Technology and More