May 25, 2009

The Secret of Googlenomics

I just read an amazing and insightful article in wired about the 'Secret of googlenomics', which was an riveting introduction to the auction based principles that have become the core of almost everything at google. And even more importantly represent a possible future for many other modern elements of the future economy.

Most of the article references a presentation given by google's chief economist, Hal Varian, who's career was inspired by Isaac Asimov's books The Foundation Series: "In Isaac Asimov's first Foundation Trilogy, there was a character who basically constructed mathematical models of society, and I thought this was a really exciting idea. When I went to college, I looked around for that subject. It turned out to be economics."

I was also inspired by Asimov's theory of 'psychohistory' when I read those books back in the early 90's, but unlike Hal, I thought the idea was entirely impossible, and so I stuck with reality and studied pure science. Perhaps I was wrong, as google's mathematicians now do take into account everything from the weather to peoples fashions and buying habits, to predict the best adverts to use on search results.

I strongly recommend reading the entire article at For a taster, here is the concluding paragraph:

There's a wild contrast between this sparsely furnished residence and what it has spawned—dozens of millionaire geeks, billions of auctions, and new ground rules for businesses in a data-driven society that is far weirder than the one Asimov envisioned nearly 60 years ago. What could be more baffling than a capitalist corporation that gives away its best services, doesn't set the prices for the ads that support it, and turns away customers because their ads don't measure up to its complex formulas? Varian, of course, knows that his employer's success is not the result of inspired craziness but of an early recognition that the Internet rewards fanatical focus on scale, speed, data analysis, and customer satisfaction. (A bit of auction theory doesn't hurt, either.) Today we have a name for those rules: Googlenomics. Learn them, or pay the price.

May 11, 2009

Artistic Engineers

I've always believed that artistic or creative talent was indispensable in technical fields like science, engineering and software development. But I never put together a coherent enough description to warrant a blog post, only the occasional soliloquy over a drink. But now I've just read DHH's blog entry "We need both engineers and artists in programming", and he described it so well, I just had to respond. His description focused on a developers perspective:

People waxing lyrically about beautiful code and its sensibilities. People willing to trade the hard scientific measurements such as memory footprint and runtime speed for something so ephemeral as programmer happiness.

Now I'm originally a pure science researcher. And there is no more extreme case of a non-artistic image than that of a scientist. What do most people think: white lab-coats, thick-rimmed glasses, rigorous systematic approach to everything in life and a total lack of
artistic flair.

And often that image is not entirely inaccurate. As 'Robert Martin' indicated, professionalism is a very important quality for software development (and I add - science and engineering in general). But as DHH asserts: 'the wonderful thing about this new age of programming is that we need and prosper from both types of programmers'.

I agree with David. You really do need both types. And if you look back at some of the most impressive discoveries in science in the 20th century, there were artistic people involved, usually with the key discovery. I love the biggest deviation from the boring stereotype - Einstein, with his wild hair and almost chaotic appearance.

It's all about thinking outside the box. David says it's all about 'programmer happiness'. Of course he's right too.

Now what about the irony that DHH's profile shot is so much more professional looking than Einstein's?