Thursday, November 3, 2011

Time Asymmetry and the Department of Motor Vehicles

Why do people dread going to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Why do the workers there seem so disgruntled? Because of time asymmetry. The amount of time you have and will invest in taking care of your errands at the DMV is orders of magnitude more than the amount of time a worker will invest in handling your matters.

You only have one appointment, whereas any given worker may go through dozens of customers in the span of a day. This imbalance and asymmetry is what leads to conflicting attitudes towards the same interaction between the representative and the customer, and why both sides seem to loathe the experience.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Nate Dogg Number

Nate Dogg was a rapper known for his prolific collaborations with numerous other hip-hop artists, whence he can usually be heard singing a catchy hook in between melodic rap verses. Nate Dogg passed away recently, and I thought it would be fun to honor him by creating the Nate Dogg number. Similar to the Erdős number, the Nate Dogg number is the collaborative distance between a person and Nate Dogg as measured by a collaboration on a musical track.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Data Mining the NBA - Players Most Similar to Michael Jordan

Professional sports are chock full of numbers and statistics, which are possibly the most widely consumed and readily available mass data sets. For an aspiring data geek and long time sports fan, applying data mining techniques to sports is a fun and interesting way to play with various approaches and potentially discover new things from data. Lucky for us, many of these data sets are available online and can be downloaded for free. For NBA data, we can use the great data set provided by that includes comprehensive statistics for the NBA and the ABA from inception until 2009.

When it comes to basketball, the most oft-debated issue is the question of who the greatest player of all time is. However, there's usually little controversy or dissent.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Best Marketing Strategy That You Don't Know About

Every time I pass a Public Storage facility, I'm reminded of their brilliant marketing and pricing strategy of offering the first month of storage for $1. The effectiveness of this strategy is subtle, but ingenious. Rather than offering the first month of storage for free, they put a tangible (albeit small) price on a service that few people know the price of. I, for one, had no idea how much monthly storage facilities cost. For years, I thought the industry standard cost of a month's worth of rent for storage space was around $1. It wasn't until I actually looked into storage facilities and started comparing prices did I realize that the $1 was far from the truth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Facebook Puzzles - Refrigerator Madness

For software engineers, free drinks at a place of employment equates to a certain level of prestige. If a company cares about you enough to always keep the refrigerator fully stocked with caffeinated beverages, then it must be a great place to work. It's sort of silly, considering how bad most soft drinks are for your health. Add that to the fact that most software engineers nary get any semblance of exercise - or even much daylight for that matter - and you have a dangerous combination on your hands.

Nevertheless, free food and drinks, no matter how unhealthy, are always popular staples at hot technology companies. Facebook is no exception, which is why they released a programming puzzle to solicit help for optimizing productivity amongst their soda-drinking, caffeine-slinging engineers.

The Refrigerator Madness puzzle (fridgemadness) is interesting not because it deals with matching engineers with beverages, but rather because it presents the task at hand in the form of a classic mathematical and computer science problem. In fact, this problem has many real world applications, and has been used for things like pairing college students up with internship programs, or paring medical students up with residency programs.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Facebook Puzzles - It's A Small World

The It's A Small World Facebook Engineering Puzzle (smallworld) is probably one of the more difficult snack-level problems; it's also one of the funnest since the standard solution involves using a nifty data structure (note: Facebook took down the original puzzle so I'm linking to another site with the description). Even on first glance, it's easy to understand the objective of the puzzle. The input is a list of Cartesian coordinates on a two-dimensional plane, and the goal is to find the 3 closest points for every point in the list.

In fact, this problem is commonly found in applications we all use everyday. Be it location based mobile apps, mapping software, or recommendations systems, chances are you've experienced the need to find things that are "close to" other things, whether physically or abstractly. Let's dive a little deeper and see how it all works.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

An Open Letter Regarding Innovation To The Household Goods Manufacturers of America

Dear Household Goods Manufacturers of America,

I have a simple request for you all: stop innovating. When it comes to things like home storage or cleaning supplies, I just need something that works and does its job. I don't need an ironing board that can double as a dining table or a lawn mower that also feeds the dog. My request is backed by two anecdotes with regards to plastic storage bins and vacuum cleaners.