Blake Borgeson, in blog form

suspected facts. validated opinions.

Towards completely understanding human biology

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Human genome at ten: Life is complicated

The above links to an awesome brief overview in Nature News of where we stand in reaching for that goal.

I like Davidson’s (of Caltech) summary best:

Biology is entering a period where the science can be underlaid by explanatory and predictive principles, rather than little bits of causality swimming in a sea of phenomenology.

Davidson has been using systems biology to work towards a pretty complete understanding of the developmental system of the sea urchin’s skeleton, which is pretty complex.

There are many in the article voicing the basic opinion that biology just gets more complicated the more you study it, and the more we learn the farther we seem from a complete understanding.  My opinion is that we’re understanding more and more, and quickly progressing towards being able to significantly interfere with human diseases and alter our own biology in positive ways.  When you set a bar like that, measuring progress actually becomes more tractable.

In particular, I especially love the bit from Schekman of Berkeley, who shares my views about there being 2 kinds of scientists regarding the kinds of predictions and prognostications they make:

I’ve seen enough scientists to know that some people are simplifiers and others are dividers.

I agree completely.  Some just like for things to stay complicated, and resist accepting any simplifying explanations.  These “dividers” (though that’s a bit of a harsh word) are in it for the exploration and the mystery and the thrill of discovery.  Others, the “simplifiers”, think in terms of forward progress in gaining knowledge that we can put to use in solving problems.  You can immediately tell most scientists’ bent by talking to them about some pretty poorly-understood issue in any field, like say how memories form at a neuronal level—some focus on what we know and are learning, others on what we don’t know and still seems “beyond us”.

Written by blakeweb

March 31, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Posted in biology

confirmation bias exposed (in 1960)

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I’ve been reading the blog Overcoming Bias sporadically over the last several months, and I’ve learned a lot from it.  The topic, naturally, is examining ways that cognitive biases affect how we think, and if you haven’t already delved into the ideas, you’ll be amazed when you come to understand just how much these biases lower our practical intelligence.

I just came across one of the earliest experiments to illustrate the strength of a very prevalent example, confirmation bias, and I think it’s really fascinating, not to mention helpful to be aware of.  The experiment was carried out by Peter Wason, and it’s called the 2-4-6 Problem–I’ll go ahead and quote for you:

Among the first to investigate this phenomenon was Peter Cathcart Wason (1960), whose 2-4-6 problem presented subjects with three numbers (a triple):

2 4 6

Subjects were told that the triple conforms to a particular rule. They were then asked to discover the rule by generating their own triples and using the feedback they received from the experimenter. Every time the subject generated a triple, the experimenter would indicate whether the triple conformed to the rule. The subjects were told that once they were sure of the correctness of their hypothesized rule, they should announce the rule.

While the actual rule was simply “any ascending sequence”, the subjects seemed to have a great deal of difficulty in inducing it, often announcing rules that were far more complex than the correct rule. The subjects seemed to test only “positive” examples—triples the subjects believed would conform to their rule and confirm their hypothesis. What they did not do was attempt to challenge or falsify their hypotheses by testing triples that they believed would not conform to their rule. Wason referred to this phenomenon as confirmation bias, whereby subjects systematically seek only evidence that confirms their hypotheses, an explanation he made appeal to also for performance on his selection task (Wason 1968), though he did briefly consider that participants might be using a three-valued rather than two-valued logic. Confirmation bias has been used to explain why people believe pseudoscientific ideas.

It’s interesting for me to see that if I was faced with this problem, my first inclination would be to think, “Maybe it’s just adding two each time…” then choose “1,3,5” as my first test.  Even if I was limited by the number of triples I could guess, I’d feel a strong urge to confirm my hypothesis, when the rational choice, the one with the best chance of the quickest success, would be to try to disprove it.

As we go through life building models of how the world works and why things are like they are, confirmation bias leads people unknowingly to rely on untested beliefs, setting us up for failure whether we’re trying to solve problems, resolve our differences, or just make good choices in life.  Beware! =)

Written by blakeweb

January 4, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Posted in thinking

Tagged with ,

my comment on seth godin’s post “breakage”: be careful with your customers

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Seth Godin‘s blog doesn’t seem to allow comments, so here we are.

I really like the theme of his most recent post, “Breakage“: you have to be careful with your customers.  You might go years upping prices bit by bit, then all of a sudden lose half your customers before you know it.  Massive swings like that can happen whether making just a slight change to your pricing, or what you offer, or your tactics.  Here’s the last bit of the post: (although you should just read it–it’s short.)

When you hit the breaking point with one person, it might be 1,000 or 100,000 people who do the same thing at the same time. And you don’t get a second chance. They’re gone.

It’s not just money. It’s service. Or trust. Or spam.

You can stretch a rubber band for a long time. But then it breaks.

I heartily agree.  But he neglected to discuss what that company should be doing differently: it’s something so many businesses should be doing, and _especially_ businesses with a big customer base, since it’s so easy in the internet age.  Test.

Test new products internally, then with a limited set of your customers, before offering them to everyone.  Test advertising messaging, test landing pages, test changes to your checkout process if you’re in e-commerce.  And if you need to make pricing changes, absolutely test those changes before rolling them out to every customer.  Testing is the clear victor over focus groups, surveys, or any other method of gauging customer preferences without them actually making the decision in question.  If you ask them how a change in pricing would affect their decision, you won’t get the right answer.  If you serve 5% of your customers a different price, you’ll quickly know if it’s a good or terrible idea.

Maybe Seth’s insurance company, in fact, was merely testing pricing changes, and he happened to be in the 5% of their customers randomly selected to get the highest price increases, year after year.  If so, then Seth’s departure has just given them some very valuable information they can now apply to their pricing model for their customer base as a whole.  My gut tells me Seth’s right, though, and they’re just raising prices for everyone by the same amount, year after year.  If so, then as he suggests, they may have made an unexpectedly costly mistake.

p.s.: There are plenty of businesses where testing prices often doesn’t make a lot of sense, for a number of possible reasons.  At basecamp, for example, simple and consistent pricing is part of what makes them who they are.  I wouldn’t favor pricing experimentation for them.  For amazon, definitely yes.  For a new startup still looking to hit its product/market fit: don’t worry about testing tiny changes–iterate on your whole product.

Written by blakeweb

September 13, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Posted in marketing, startups

Tagged with , ,

what i liked at techcrunch50: fitbit, grockit, goodguide, and peter thiel

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I didn’t watch every presentation.  I probably saw 10 in person and streamed another dozen or so from home.  I also didn’t pay to attend the conference.  I volunteered for free admission, which meant showing up for a couple hours on Sunday to chat with the organizers beforehand, then showing up early Monday morning to help get people to their destinations.  A couple of those people I guided I didn’t mind getting up early to meet: James Currier (I’ve written about him before) and Michael Arrington.  During that 10-second conversation with Mr. Arrington, I felt almost as if I was speaking to the most influential blogger about technology startup companies of our day, if you can even grasp what that means. =)

Since I was given the gift of free techcrunch, I thought the least I could do was give back just a bit with my opinions of companies I learned of that you actually might care to know about.

Each link goes straight to their tc50 presentation video, which is a pretty painless way to learn more, if you’re interested.

Fitbit.  These guys were one of 5 runners up, as were my next two highlights.  They’ve basically got a device about the size of a usb flash drive that you clip on your clothes and wear all day, every day, if you feel like it.  Using some sensors (accelorometer-type, not gps-type yet), it measures your movements and records your level of activity throughout the day and night.  It automagially uploads the data through a wireless base station in your home to their servers.  Anytime you want, you get on their website and see how many calories you’ve been burning, what your activity level has been like, what your sleep patterns have been like, in as much or as little detail as you like in very pretty charts.  There’s a tremendous amount more it’s capable of, in fact–watch the video if that sounds cool.  It’s a one-time $99 purchase. [sorry, realized they don’t have a video available. their website is]

Grockit.  I’m not quite sold on using it myself yet, but they’ve made an incredible step forward in collaborative learning online.  Study for the GMAT with your friends, or with any number of people you’ll meet on the site.

Goodguide.  This is something I’ve been waiting for for a while now.  And these guys have seriously nailed it, it appears so far.  It’s an online guide and repository for health, environmental, and social impacts of consumer goods.  Their first focus is “personal care and household chemical” products, and already I’ve used it to decide I need to switch from Coppertone’s Sport Lotion to its Sport Gel sunscreen.  You’d be surprised at the tremendous difference between the two in terms of health risks.

Michael Arrington chats with Peter Thiel.  Great thoughts from Peter Thiel of paypal, facebook, slide, founders fund, and many more on technology trends, bubbles, and how much vc-backed startup ceos should get paid, based on analyzing the performance of past startups (his opinion, to break the suspense: 100k-150k).

Bonus: Tonchidot.  Not a company I would recommend investing in if you’re an investor reading this, but a video demonstration definitely worth watching, just to see what someone has been able to do with an iphone.  They overlay data from the internet on live video of the real world through your iphone.  You’ll have to watch it.

Written by blakeweb

September 11, 2008 at 12:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

using a speculative market to decide our laws? (“futarchy”)

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I just learned of this idea today, and it caught my attention.  The post I’m referring to:

The two sentence version:

In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare. The basic rule of government would be:

When a betting market clearly estimates that a proposed policy would increase expected national welfare, that proposal becomes law.

I haven’t yet digested this much, but I wanted to see what other people’s initial reaction was to the idea. Is it something we should be discussing more? Obviously it’s not realistically going to happen anytime soon, but with what we’ve learned about markets even in the past decade, what do you think?

Written by blakeweb

September 9, 2008 at 6:09 pm

obamanomics needs a one-liner: excellent nytimes article on obama’s economics views

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There’s an excellent (once-a-month excellent, if I can say that) article that appeared on the nyt website yesterday on Barack Obama’s economics philosophy, and ideas for what we need to do to fix the state we’re in. If you have time (it’s 8 pages, but worth it), it explains a lot about the politics of economics over the last few presidents, and is very clearly written and applicable right now.

Here’s an excerpt that sums up the gist of Obama’s views.  This came in response to a question, after an hour of economics discussion with the journalist, as to whether or not Obama “had a message that compared with Reagan’s simple call for less government and lower taxes.”  Obama’s reply:

I think I can tell a pretty simple story. Ronald Reagan ushered in an era that reasserted the marketplace and freedom. He made people aware of the cost involved of government regulation or at least a command-and-control-style regulation regime. Bill Clinton to some extent continued that pattern, although he may have smoothed out the edges of it. And George Bush took Ronald Reagan’s insight and ran it over a cliff. And so I think the simple way of telling the story is that when Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over, he wasn’t arguing for an era of no government. So what we need to bring about is the end of the era of unresponsive and inefficient government and short-term thinking in government, so that the government is laying the groundwork, the framework, the foundation for the market to operate effectively and for every single individual to be able to be connected with that market and to succeed in that market. And it’s now a global marketplace.

Now, that’s the story. Now, telling it elegantly — ‘low taxes, smaller government’ — the way the Republicans have, I think is more of a challenge.

Read the article if you want more.  I solidly agree with the bulk of Obama’s general economics positions, at least most discussed in this article, and also that we all need come up with a pretty package for it.  If you come up with something great, let me know.  If you disagree, keep quiet let me know.

Written by blakeweb

August 21, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with , ,

ooga vs. y combinator, apple vs. google, designer vs. curator

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Innovation and entrepreneurship are two of my favorite foods for thought, so naturally their intersection grabs my attention.  Pushing entrepreneurship forward–whether by getting more people excited enough to try it, lowering the barriers to reasonable success, bringing more investor money to bear on funding great people with good ideas, or attacking the challenge from any other angle–can have some of the biggest impacts achievable on the rate of innovation and progress.

Reading through the online essays of Paul Graham, leader and co-founder of Y Combinator (and whom I talk about a lot here), and the blog of James Currier, leader and co-founder of Ooga Labs (my previous post mentions Medpedia, their biggest about-to-release project I know of), convinces me that both these guys have an understanding of how to achieve the biggest impact they can imagine doing something they love.  Despite what I think are similar goals and understandings about entrepreneurship and value creation, they use fairly different approaches.  Both, I think, will create tremendous value, but their different models will have a big effect on the businesses they develop.

Google and Apple are both great companies, and I have tremendous respect for their leaders.  What they do, they do well.  But they go about their jobs differently.  Larry and Sergei have from the beginning seen themselves as the ones with an eye on the vision, looking for the best creators they can find, and helping them unleash their creative energies towards the Google mission.  The  “20% time” engineers there enjoy, the fact that the wide world knows quite a lot about the general day-to-day goings on of the googleplex, and the amassing of talent and technology through dozens of acquisitions all point to a pair of leaders who see themselves as curators over designers.  Steve Jobs falls into the opposite camp, managing the direction of the organization much more directly.  Not to say that apple doesn’t acquire companies at all, but the roughly $1B Apple has put into the effort (compared with Google’s unknown but numerous billions), over a much longer history and with a recently fairly equivalent valuation, says that Apple’s acquisitions seem more designed around profit than innovation.  They prefer to innovate from within.  Even though the companies aren’t even in the same market, their familiarity and success draw these kinds of comparisons.

The same contrasts can be drawn between the self-incubator model of Ooga and others, and the pre-seed  model Y Combinator has pioneered.  Both companies aim to create as much wealth and value as possible by starting and/or growing startups to tackle what they see as important problems.  There’s a bit more emphasis on social value over profit at Ooga, but aside from that, the main difference I see is that of incubating in-house (aka designing) at Ooga, versus finding tiny startups with tons of potential, bringing them into the fold, then unleashing them (aka curating) at Y Combinator.

Which is better?  I’m personally right on the fence: I’m in love with both models.  On one hand, I love making things myself (the Steve Jobs way), and though I’m not foolish enough to think I’m the best at it, I’m smart enough to know that in many cases “just good enough” is good enough.  On the other hand, I love being a part of others’ success, and if I can create more value by helping others succeed, then that could be an even more compelling offer.

But which model is better, as in the one that will “win out”?  Not in the sense that they’re actual competitors in the marketplace–both models can coexist and take nothing away from the other.  But both are shooting for the same goal: generating value and propelling entrepreneurship.  And both have similar requirements to getting started: you need a lot of startup smarts and credibility, and some relatively deep pockets, to really get an incubator or a pre-seed funder off the ground.

So far the evidence is too slim to be very telling as to which can produce more value, just between Ooga and Y Combinator.  Ooga is more recent, supposedly having 5 projects under way about a year ago according to this article, but the Medpedia project looks phenomenal.  Y Combinator has already helped launch dozens of companies (see ‘investments’ here), many of which are widely known already (loopt, reddit, disqus,, snipshot), and a few of which have already been acquired (reddit by conde nast, omnisio by google).  Of course, it makes sense that Y Combinator will have more and larger successes–since it picks up, pumps up, and pushes out startups, it scales to a lot more companies and is responsible for a much smaller share of the value created.  And that is the real difference, in my mind–incubators invent and develop companies; microfunders just help with the developing.

It’s also worth noting that these two companies don’t necessarily represent their entire breed.  Y Combinator perfected the pre-seed funding model, but TechStars and a few others belong there as well.  In the incubator camp, Ooga is hardly the first.  IdeaLab is widely credited with pioneering the idea incubator model in the 90s (see their massive list of insanely successful spin-offs, including citysearch, commissionjunction,, overture, …).  Not included in the category with Ooga and Idealab are the nonprofit “business incubators” that offer counseling, shared office space, and business services to pre-existing startups.  Y Combinator actually looks a lot like these nonprofit business incubators as far as the basic services provided and the startups targeted, but where the nonprofits are usually funded by regional government and incented to just provide support as needed, Y Combinator gets paid via ownership in the startups and does everything it can to make the startups as valuable as possible upon leaving the program at the end of 3 months.

A more abstract way to compare the underlying designer and curator models of starting and growing new companies to drive innovation is to look at which better fits the big trends that seem to be dividing strategic winners and losers recently–here are a few I can think of: open beats closed, listening beats talking, good beats evil.  I don’t have the answer to that, but rest assured I’ll keep working on it, and let you know as soon as I’ve got the answer.  =)  In seriousness, though, if you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.  If you’ve seen a discussion on this elsewhere, please point me to it.  I care a lot about this stuff, as you can see from the incredible length of this post.

Written by blakeweb

August 16, 2008 at 12:52 am

should everything people use be free?

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People justifiably have strong opinions on the “everything’s free” model that google, facebook, linkedin (mostly), and most of the biggest up-and-comers in the new web espouse.  The conversation reached mass proportions a while ago when it made the cover of Wired, but I found a couple more interesting perspectives this week, and they tie in well together:

  • The economics of creativity – This post comes from James Currier, founder of Ooga Labs, the company behind the Medpedia project, which looks awesome.  He tells of how his great-great-grandfather married into royalty for his musical abilities, while today it’s tough for an incredibly gifted pianist to make ends meet.
  • If someone can do it for free, it will inevitably be free – a discussion at Hacker News (of YCombinator) with (yep, you guessed it) some more good insights from Paul Graham.  [Click the link at the top of that discussion if you’d like to read the blog post the discussion references.]

[ I wrote this two weeks ago, so that discussion above at YC is a little stale.  Didn’t post it right away for some reason. ]

Written by blakeweb

August 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm

doha trade talks collapse: it matters, and it’s bad for us

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It started popping up in the news throughout Tuesday, and got the front-page writeup Wednesday: after 7 years of trying, the Doha round of free trade talks have been declared over with zero agreed on.

The NYTimes and others write in detail about what the US says on one side, and what India and China say on the other, about what went wrong, and who’s the stubborn one that cares more about guarding against risks to their own pocketbook than moving forward the world economy.  But, like a lot of news, there’s very little discussion of why anyone should really care much about all this.

I believe the standard position I hear from economists: that the principle of free trade is good, just like free markets in general, but that it causes problems for the people on the losing side of the equation when wealth and jobs are redistributed within a country and throughout the world.  Still, it’s not second nature for me to think of what some real ramifications could be of free trade stopping its recent forward march, or of turning around and retreating.  But I happen to be reading a book that does a fine job of discussing that.  Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, which generally is about the benefits, causes and curses of free markets, spends some time on free trade, and its importance to free markets and competition within a country, so I thought I’d share a few lines.

First, a huge problem free markets generally run up against is the whims of democracy.  To illustrate this, the authors discuss what happens once a country has had a free market for a time–long enough to have some very successful large companies that now dominate their industries.

Those in power–the incumbents–prefer to stay in power.  They feel threatened by free markets.

So you’ve got big, successful companies that now dominate their industries and have tons of cash, and these guys are looking to put a bit of a damper on the “free” aspect of markets and competition to maintain their position.  The winning firms want to hold onto their power.  They’ve got cash.  The distressed (to a large extent, the ones who lost their jobs) are numerous, loud, and rally in the name of reversing the damage.   In their words,

…incumbent groups ride the coattails of the distressed back into power.

The two groups combine their political influence to enforce regulations on the market.  For the dominant companies, the goal is to restrict competition.  For the distressed workers, it’s to bring about a system more like the old days, with less risk and less change foreseen.  The main defense against regulating away competition, which eventually makes the industry stagnate and under-perform compared to the industry in other more competitive countries,  is opening the country’s borders to allow trade with other countries.  Competition from the outside prevents our government from regulating markets out of existence in the name of smoothing risks and preventing further damage to the distressed.

Open borders limit the ability of domestic politics to close down competition and retard financial and economic growth.

Why don’t we hear about the effects of closed borders on developed countries more these days?  Mainly, the authors believe, because these days it’s quite hard for developed countries to successfully keep out foreign competition, given how open the world as a whole has become.

A country’s borders are porous.  When the rest of the world is open, it is difficult for any single country to put up barriers to the flow of goods, capital, and people.  … So when the world is open, its borders will perforce be open unless it is a police state.  Incumbent interests will be subdued.

But if we allow the world as a whole to drift backwards, we risk those rules of the game changing significantly. Countries have the ability to close their borders en masse and keep out competition to protect incumbents and ailing industries.  The Doha Round of talks, at the beginning, was supposed to outline a set of commitments among most of the largest economies in the world to continued opening-up of borders and freeing-up of markets that are currently not very free.  In the end, the hope was to at least get everyone to commit to at least keep trade about as open as it currently is.  Unfortunately even that failed.

So let’s do what we can to keep from rolling backwards on free trade.

[Update: As I should have expected, the Economist put out a piece in their latest issue, online just a day after my post, with a lot better treatment of specifically what the eventual goal of the Doha talks at the end were, and what that failure specifically means: The Doha round…and round…and round]

Written by blakeweb

July 30, 2008 at 11:22 pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with , , , ,

some good web finds last week: zembly platform, startup ideas, a postmortem

with 2 comments

If you have been following my friendfeed, you may have noticed I decided sharing my delicious links there was overkill, so I stopped.  Instead, I’m going to try summing up a few interesting blog posts I’ve read and websites I’ve seen this past week.  I may stick to this, I may do it more often, I may stop completely.  I’ll try to keep it to things you may not have seen, and I’ll also try to stay away from really timely stuff, since I probably should have already twittered or posted that if I was going to.  I’ll also probably pull out and post separately for topics that seem worth discussion beyond just “that’s cool.”  So what’s left for this post?  Let’s find out…

+ Launched 6 weeks ago, but I just heard about it: zembly.  Coming out of Sun Microsystems, zembly is an online social simple software development platform, for creating facebook apps, meebo apps, widgets, and iphone web apps.  To explain, you can go to their website (if you can get into the beta, which is somewhere in between private and public I think), see the top apps created so far, copy one over into your account, modify it and publish it to facebook right there, on the spot.  They host the apps for you.  Its functionality is definitely limited so far, but it seems incredibly promising.  We need easier ways for more people to develop and share better software to use all over the place, and the web as a true software platform (level 3 in Marc Andreessen’s world) is a big step in that direction.

+ More VCs, and more people in general, should publish their ideas openly like this: YCombinator: Startup Ideas We’d Like to FundPaul Graham, point man and founder at YCombinator, writes essays about startups and whatever else he thinks is important, and they’re almost all phenomenal.  A few of my recent favorites:

  • Lies we tell kids – unlearning the lies we’re told growing up is hard–are they worth the protection they provide?
  • The future of web startups – web startups are easier to get going than any startups ever have been–what does that mean for their future and the future of the internet?
  • How to disagree – to-the-point guide to constructive argumentation.

+ Writing a postmortem on a failed startup is incredibly valuable to the community, and I’m sure it takes guts.  They often contain excellent insights better shared than kept close, and this is no exception: Monitor110: A Post Mortem.  If you follow fred wilson or brad feld, you’ve seen this already.  If not, here’s the author’s list of the “7 deadly sins” that he believes together prevented the company’s success:

  1. The lack of a single, “the buck stops here” leader until too late in the game
  2. No separation between the technology organization and the product organization
  3. Too much PR, too early
  4. Too much money
  5. Not close enough to the customer
  6. Slow to adapt to market reality
  7. Disagreement on strategy both within the Company and with the Board

Written by blakeweb

July 27, 2008 at 9:42 pm