New Chinese Science Fiction

This time I do a digression from my usual themes to talk about Chinese Science Fiction. But you will see that is not a great deviation: some of the topics are familiar; as William Gibson famously said: The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

I have always been a science fiction fan and I noticed in the last years that the genre is booming in China (maybe as a way to more freely talk about current affairs disguising them about speculative fiction?)

Here are three books that I enjoyed lately.  The links are to the authors or publishers pages, not any book retail page. Continue reading “New Chinese Science Fiction”

Machine Learning Yearning

Got this morning the first draft 12 chapters of Prof. Andrew Ng‘s new book titled “Machine Learning Yearning – Technical strategy for AI engineers, in the era of deep learning”.

The book cover

The book aims to help readers to quickly become better at building AI systems by gaining the practical skills needed when organising a machine learning project.
The book assumes readers are already familiar with machine learning concepts and does not go into technical explanations of how they work.

These first chapters look great, I think this book will help to close the gap between machine learning knowledge and proper execution.

My favourite chapter is the Ninth: Optimizing and satisficing metrics which suggests how to handle the problem of establishing a single-number evaluation metric when the interesting metrics are not compatible:

Suppose you care about both the accuracy and the running time of a learning algorithm.

It seems unnatural to derive a single metric by putting accuracy and running time into a single formula, such as:

Accuracy – 0.5*RunningTime

Here’s what you can do instead:
First, define what is an “acceptable” running time. Let’s say anything that runs in 100ms is acceptable.
Then, maximize accuracy, subject to your classifier meeting the running time criteria.
Here, running time is a “satisficing metric”— your classifier just has to be “good enough” on this metric, in the sense that it should take at most 100ms. Accuracy is the “optimizing metric.”

P.S. I know, satisficing is not a common word and is marked wrong by spelling checkers but it really exists ! I had to look it myself but here is the definition:
To satisfice means to choose or adopt the first option fulfilling all requirements that one comes across (in contrast to look for the optimal one).

My new book: “from Zero to Agile”


I have just published on Amazon my new book about Agile.

Agile is on great advance, more and more organisations and teams adopting it. But what is it exactly? And how do you become agile?

In this book I want to show how is possible to introduce gradually a series of changes so that at the end your organisation will be agile (i.e., it has understood the Agile values and principles and know how to apply them), not only does some kind of Agile practices.

Through examples you can see how to introduce and tailor the Agile principles, week after week: in 8 weeks we took a team with no prior experience of Agile into changing its mentality and attitude.

I hope this journey can help your team (and further: the entire organisation) to do a similar one toward the same goal: being Agile.

The examples show which are the general principles and why / when they make sense, so you will be able to inspect your situation, adapt these principles (as needed) and adopt them, finally repeating this cycle continuously.

Build your method up, don’t tailor it down.

Finally, this book is about agility as values system, culture, mind-set, and not about a specific process or methodology. All the currently most used methodologies – Scrum, Lean and Kanban – will be described, each one with its advantages and disadvantages.

The book contains revised versions of the posts published here in the past plus several brand new chapters (about Kanban, how to scale Agile and many examples of retrospectives for each topic introduced every week).

Asymmetric information

This is a summary of  the fifth chapter, “The inside Story”  of Mr. Tim Harford’s economic classic “The undercover economist”.
David Bodanis, author of Electric Universe describes this book: “Reading [it] is like spending an ordinary day wearing x-ray goggles”. I’m reading from the 2006 paperback edition.

Asymmetric information: In economics theory, it deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information than the other. The consequence – when one negotiator knows too much and the other too little – is that the agreement becomes impossible.

A classic paper on adverse selection is George Akerlof‘s “The Market for Lemons“.

This problem is troublesome for e.g. second-hand cars, accommodations or restaurants but also for more important goods as health insurance: an insurance policy depends on mutual ignorance.

Akerlof won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work and shared it with two people who proposed partial solutions.

The first, Michael Spence, argued that the side with the information might be able to communicate it in a way that the side without the information could trust.
For example, a used car seller – instead of just saying “all my cars are perfect, not lemons” as talk is cheap – would be buying an expensive car showroom,  an investment affordable only by someone who plans to stick around for the long-term. Over the years, the sales would pay for the showroom. A lemon-seller couldn’t operate like it: he would sell a few overhyped lemons and then have to move to another place. For the same reasons, banks in the past (before government oversight, at least outside USA 🙂 ) have been used to build such impressive buildings.
And for the same reason, you pay more at an established shop than at a market stall if you buy a product about which you have no information. And it explains expensive advertising campaign with no informational content at all.

The second person, Joe Stiglitz, explored ways in which the side without the information might uncover it. For example, a health insurer could offer policies with lower premium (making it cheaper) but higher excess (the amount by which any claim is reduced), so attracting low-risk customers automatically and revealing the customers’ inside information.
Similarly Starbucks is offering frills like flavoured syrup to persuade customers to reveal whether or not they are price conscious.

At last, Tim Harford, is presenting a study case where an asymmetric information problem has been tackled: the healthcare system in Singapore.

It works like this: everyone has to put every year some money, let’s say 1000$, in a savings account, simply taken from the tax bill (given from the government for the people who earn too little). Since it’s compulsory there is no adverse selection in place. When you retire, you can partly use the money on the  accounts to increase your pension; when you die, you can leave it to your heirs.
And then, every year you can use the money for your health bills. When you’re young you can expect to need less and let them earn interest. You can decide autonomously how to use the money, maybe in preventive maintenance, maybe only for urgent cases. In case of different therapies, it’s your choices to decide which one to go for and if the cost are a criteria. This will solve the moral hazard issue (=if you always compensate people when bad things happen to them, they may get careless”).

[Link] The psychology of change management

Nowadays organizations must constantly change and improve to stay relevant and this means persuading groups and individuals to change the way they work, not an easy task.

Four conditions necessary

In an old article (2003) in the McKinsey Quarterly Lawson and Price identified four conditions for changing employee mind-sets:

  • the employees see the point of the change (know the context, explain the why) and agree with it – at least enough to give it a try;
  • the surrounding structures (reward and recognition systems, for example) must be in tune with the new behavior;
  • employees must have the skills to do what it requires;
  • they must see people they respect modeling it actively.

Each of these conditions is realized independently; together they add up to a way of changing the behavior of people in organizations by changing attitudes. Continue reading “[Link] The psychology of change management”