Suppose I place a drop of water in an empty swimming pool. The drop of water doubles in size every hour. At the end of the 18th hour, the swimming pool is full. How long does it take to fill one fourth of the pool?
(Answer: 16 hours)
We asked this brainteaser in UCF Interviews, and most candidates struggled to answer it correctly. It was difficult for me to sympathize when I saw them struggle — the answer seems too obvious in retrospect. It hurt every time a candidate guessed “9 hours.” However, I’ve never experienced that initial anxiety of hearing the question without the vaguest idea of how to answer it. When I was first asked this question, Aaras answered it before I had any time to think (props to Aaras for thinking so quickly on his feet).
For the few candidates who did eventually get the answer, what trait / skill-set does this demonstrate? Is it just luck? It’s obviously difficult to distinguish those who’ve heard the riddle before from those who haven’t, but would the question be useful at all even if the candidate was guaranteed to not know the answer in advance?
To any UCF candidates reading this, just be glad we asked a somewhat mathematical question instead of:
A man pushes his car to his wife’s hotel and loses his fortune. What happened?
I bought my FitBit One in February, but it only became useful in the past two weeks when six other friends bought a FitBit as well — most opted for the Flex. We all compete to get the most steps, and Aashir’s already emerged as the consistent loser every week. Sharing step counts with others has a stronger influence than I thought; losing to particular friends (Kruti) can be extremely embarrassing. After finding some FitBit competition, I’ve developed several peculiar habits:
- While waiting for pedestrian right of way at the crosswalk, I pace back and forth until I can safely cross. Sometimes I continue walking to the next crosswalk, forcing myself to walk backwards after crossing (and get more steps).
- I find reasons to come back to my apartment if I’m on campus and reasons to go to campus if I’m at my apartment. For example, I’m “studying” with my friend on campus right now, even though I’ve done enough work for the day and I’d much rather be sleeping.
- Distances < 1 mile always qualify as walking distance now… even when others going to the same destination are driving. Yesterday I walked to and from Clay Pit (an additional ~2000 steps) while my 3 FitBit competitors opted to drive.
- In dire conditions, jogging around my apartment is perfectly acceptable. Last weekend, Aashir was beating me by ~1,500 steps for the day at 11:39 PM. Aashir’s double occupancy room gave sufficient space for me to run around and end up winning by the end of the day.
- When cleaning the apartment with roommates (unfortunately, a rare event), I settle with taking out the trash instead of wiping the counters. Sweeping the floor is also acceptable, when done properly.
Actions like these seem to have a negligible impact on my overall fitness, but long term they may add up. I don’t anticipate becoming Terry Crews anytime soon; staying out of shape is all I expect (I eat Taco Bell 5+ times a week, so this is actually a major concern).
Some of my friends remain skeptical of the FitBit’s ability to improve fitness; the most common retorts revolve around the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the devices. The FitBits probably do a poor job of measuring steps while on an elliptical or bicycle. Given that the FitBit Flex is worn on the wrist, I’m sure some arm movements get accidentally counted as steps. When I keep the FitBit in my left pocket while driving, my Floors count ends up inflated from pressing the clutch pedal repeatedly. So I’ll concede that measuring data with exact accuracy is impossible (although the FitBit is the best right now).
Nevertheless, step counts should be looked at relative to other step counts. Suppose the FitBit gives me ~1,000 extra steps everyday. If I get 8,000 today and 9,000 tomorrow, I still know I improved. I have my goal set at 11,000 steps a day, but I don’t stop right when I get to 11,000. Likewise, I don’t stop right when I overtake my FitBit buddies. There may be a margin of error in the FitBit’s measurement, but if I’m consistently losing to Aashir, I know I need to walk more.
The FitBit has definitely given me a greater appreciation for walking, but it’s also demonstrated one important thing unrelated to fitness — the power of the network effect. Similar to how Google+ is useless to you if your friends don’t sign up as well, the FitBit is boring until you compete with buddies. For 6 months, the FitBit had a negligible impact on my lifestyle. Today, the FitBit dashboard is another web page I open along with Facebook and Gmail each time I open up Chrome. Let’s see how long this lasts until I get bored again (if that happens).
Most would disagree with my contrarian friend’s Facebook status, but I can’t understand why. The primary motivations behind the ban are potential health risks associated with performance-enhancing drugs and equal opportunity for athletes. I would guess the negative effects have been incredibly exaggerated (see marijuana), and they surely aren’t as dangerous as the potential for brain damage from repeated hits to the head in football. Nevertheless, I won’t pretend to have any medical expertise on PEDs, so I won’t speak much on the first point.
The second point, however, is completely baseless. We’re disallowing Alex Rodriguez from taking the same pills that thousands of high school teenagers take, but we’re letting Kobe Bryant fly halfway across the world to get Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy? Kobe wasn’t the only one to flee the US for athletic advancement; Peyton Manning got stem cell treatment for neck issues in Europe. There’s significant controversy around such procedures, and the line between performance enhancing and performance enabling drugs is blurred.
There seems to be the misconception that such PEDs automatically make the athlete the best. Amateur lifters take protein shakes to help them maximize gains from hours of hard-work at the gym. PEDs have a similar effect, as detailed by Tyler Hamilton (American cyclist caught for doping):
EPO granted the ability to suffer more; to push yourself farther and harder than you’d ever imagined, in both training and racing. It rewarded precisely what I was good at: having a great work ethic, pushing myself to the limit and past it. I felt almost giddy: this was a new landscape. I began to see races differently. They weren’t rolls of the genetic dice, or who happened to be on form that day. They didn’t depend on who you were. They depended on what you did—how hard you worked, how attentive and professional you were in your preparation.
Doping qualifies as an unfair advantage in cycling, but being 7 feet tall in basketball isn’t? Or what about how the average vision for a baseball player is 20/13, meaning they can read a letter at 20 feet that a normal person could make out at only 13 feet. Should Lasik eye surgery be banned for baseball players? Runners need skinny calves and ankles specifically because every pound at the extremities is more costly than a pound at the torso. But the lower legs of Kenyans from the Kalenjin tribe are a pound lighter on average, saving 8% energy over a km; is this fair?
Rather than limiting the competition in professional sports, we should encourage the use of science and intelligence to maximize the potential of athletes. The current method of evaluating which treatments are legal and illegal seems a bit arbitrary, and athletes should be allowed to pursue whichever treatment helps them achieve the most success.
A few days ago, there was some debate on Hacker News over strategies on maintaining proper fitness while working from a desk. One blogpost explained the positive results from using a standing desk, and an opposing blogpost considered the transition to a standing desk both “futile” and “overkill.” I’ve never used a standing desk for extended periods, but I have had fitness concerns after working from a desk.
This past summer, I interned at Deloitte Consulting. This was my first work experience in a professional environment, and the ensuing decrease in free time hit me by surprise. Coming into the internship, I anticipated the dreaded “9 – 5 job,” but that’s not very accurate. As an intern capped at 40 hours a week, I was still in the office from about 8:45 – 5:45. My co-workers at my office routinely worked from 9 – 7, and I occasionally overheard them talking about being at the office after midnight on weekends. If my short workday left me with little time for exercise after work, I can only imagine what it must be like with extended hours and a family.
But summer is over now, and I’m back at UT Austin. I’ve never maintained a constant workout routine, but the college lifestyle helps keep me in shape even without dedicated exercise periods. Here’s a graph of my steps over the past 100 days, as measured by my FitBit (Gist to download my FitBit data):
As you can see, I was extremely inactive while living at home in Houston this summer before and after my internship. I was perfectly fine with a few weeks of laziness while at home, but I actually wanted to improve my fitness level during my internship. Unfortunately, getting home at 6 or 630 made exercising relatively difficult. Now that I’m back in school, I’m living a much more healthy style without even making a conscious effort. Here are some statistics comparing step counts in the periods above:
|Summer in Houston||3602||4960||3717|
|Internship in Austin||4812||5148||2968|
|School in Austin||12842||12262||3589|
I’m not trying to argue that 12,000 steps alone is enough to make someone healthy, but it is a drastic improvement over the stationary lifestyle I had while working. In the midst of my internship, I was about 165 pounds with 21.2% bodyfat. After just a week of school, I’m about 161 pounds with 17.8% bodyfat. While I would like to develop a consistent workout routine, it’s reassuring to know that the volume of steps in college helps keep me in shape.
I previously discussed a new project that involves stylometry to predict authorship of text, and it is now complete. Programming the interface became the most engaging aspect of the project, even though I originally anticipated it being the prediction logic. Small writing samples from some of my friends (Elina, Ruchi, Anuj, Ankit, and Mihir) made it difficult to implement anything more than the most basic prediction strategies. Also, I could write very “ugly” or lackluster logic, and nobody would ever find out (without looking at the source). But people immediately see even the most minor interface issues. Thus, the overwhelming majority of my time was spent on polishing the UI.
The app admittedly predicts authorship quite poorly. Nevertheless, it’s still mildly entertaining to paste in random text and see which blogger the app thinks is the author. Part of the reason it’s enjoyable regardless of it’s prediction ability is the clean interface (thanks to Bootstrap and Highcharts): the columns smoothly transition into new probabilities as the input text changes, everything properly resizes when the window is shrunk, a tooltip appears when the mouse moves over different columns, clicking on the columns opens the respective blog in a new window, etc. The prediction is obviously important, but the small features that we never think about create the full experience.
You rarely read a Mac OS X review that discusses mission control, the multi-touch trackpad, or spotlight’s built-in calculator and dictionary, even though these are some of the features I use daily and miss most when using a PC. My Nissan looked unbelievable in the YouTube videos with its sleek headlights, obnoxiously large rear-wing, and aerodynamic body. Unfortunately, the reviews failed to mention how the abnormal body shape in the back gives minimal peripheral or rear visibility and how the car gives too much of a hands-on driving experience as I feel every bump in the road and hear nothing but excessive tire noise. Drew Linzer predicted the 2012 Presidential election months before most pundits, including the almighty Nate Silver, but nobody ever talks about Linzer. Maybe it’s because Nate Silver posts comprehendible graphs like this, and Linzer posts absolutely hideous ones like this.
Macs and iPhones are obviously overpriced when considering just the specs, but their consideration for small details give them their infamously loyal fanbase. I don’t know many details about the Nismo’s popularity, but I wouldn’t ever recommend the car to anyone despite it’s impressive bang-for-the-buck. Linzer may have beat Silver in predictions, but Silver is now the world’s most respected statistician. It seems as though the small features always make the biggest differences.
MG Siegler, columnist for TechCrunch, on why Amazon is so successful (bold emphasis is mine):
The goal is actually to not make a huge profit too early, and Bezos [Amazon's CEO] manages it perfectly. You want to avoid showing your cards too early as you continue to lay the groundwork for an ever-larger business. Occasionally, you’ll have to show those cards and win a hand to prove that you can. But the rest of the time you call and fold, as you await the monster to take the entire pot.
I know that sounds crazy. Cash is king, right? Not always. Just look at Apple. They are the kings of cash. $13 billion in profit one quarter, $9 billion the next, and so on. The vault is so full of gold coins that even Scrooge McDuck would need a lifeguard to swim in it. And yet, Apple’s story the past year has largely been one of a company in flux. Will they ever right the ship? Is it over?
These silly doomsday projections are mainly a result of Wall Street swinging from ultra-bullish to extremely bearish on the company in that same timeframe. The “problem”? Apple was too successful, too quickly.
Too successful? Too quickly? Amazon is doing well because it isn’t making money, and Apple is doing poorly because it is? WHAT?
This sort of illogical analysis isn’t rare when discussing Apple (see here, here, here, here, and here). Occasionally we see a user providing intelligent and specific criticism of an Apple product, but we mostly see “experts” making guesses off whims. These so-called stock pundits have proved themselves wrong before, suggesting to short Apple early on in it’s period of hyperbolic growth. Apple has certainly declined over the past year from its peak. So did Jordan’s Bulls when they only won 69 and 62 games the two seasons after winning 72 games, but those Bulls teams certainly weren’t dying (they still won championships all three years). Calling Apple dead is a gross mischaracterization of the company and one of the must warrantless statements possible.
The most important goals for a company is maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. Everything else a company does is meant to contribute to one of those two things (except for goodwill gestures or charitable actions). So profit, or net income, sounds like the best measure. But as every Finance professor will tell you, the better operational goal for management is to maximize shareholder wealth, or the firm’s share price for publicly traded companies. We focus on shareholder wealth instead of profit for a few reasons:
- Profit is actually quite difficult to define in the accounting world. Some firms recognize revenue when a sale is made, even when cash has not yet been received. Shareholder value focuses on expected cash returns.
- Profit alone doesn’t account for the time value of money. Money today is more useful than money tomorrow. Shareholder value incorporates expectations for future profit.
- Profit ignores the risk associated with cash flows. Given two options with equal rewards, we’d prefer the less risky choice. Shareholder value adjusts based on the amount of uncertainty.
I pulled a list of large, American, publicly-traded companies and got their net income (profit) for the last four quarters as well as their current market capitalization (shareholder wealth). I don’t think people realize exactly how valuable Apple is:
By both measures, the only company even close to Apple is Exxon. Over the past year, Apple has made more money than both Google and Microsoft, or more than the first 30 companies combined. Apple also has $147B in cash, almost enough to buy out Ford and GMC. If anything, this graph makes Apple’s stock look undervalued.
So say what you want about Apple no longer being innovative. Maybe they don’t have any new products up their sleeves that’ll ever match the iPhone. Maybe they aren’t the exact same company they were when Steve Jobs died. Maybe they have forgotten about the power user and have focused more on the other 99%. But calling Apple dead is just about the most unjustifiable assertion that anyone could make right now.