A policy brief on the NGO GiveDirectly was just released today. GiveDirectly is an NGO founded by two MIT Economics PhD students to provide unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) to poor households in Kenya, in which they give large lump sums of money (up to two years worth of income) with no strings attached. Unconditional cash transfers have become one of the most exciting opportunities and areas of research in development economics over the past few years. GiveDirectly, one of the foremost UCT programs in the field, has received some press in the past year, and this marks the first thorough study of GiveDirectly. I think the promising results of the study hold exciting potential for a new paradigm of charity-giving for the poor.

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A few week ago, I happened upon the Wikipedia entry for Ötzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest natural human mummy that dates back to 3,300 BC. I was absolutely fascinated by the depth of analysis that researchers had produced on this mummy. Scientists were able to determine Ötzi’s age, the contents of his last two meals, his profession, his lifestyle, and even his cause of death.

High levels of both copper particles and arsenic were found in Ötzi’s hair. This, along with Ötzi’s copper axe which is 99.7% pure copper, has led scientists to speculate that Ötzi was involved in copper smelting.

By examining the proportions of Ötzi’s tibia, femur and pelvis, Christopher Ruff has determined that Ötzi’s lifestyle included long walks over hilly terrain.

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Reposting my answer to http://www.quora.com/Harvard-College/Which-non-technical-classes-at-Harvard-should-a-technical-major-really-consider-taking

Question: What non-technical classes at Harvard should a technical major really consider taking?

I’ll suggest a few classes, but I’m going to focus on proposing a framework for thinking about what non-technical classes would be most valuable for you to take as a technical major. After all, every person is unique and would enjoy their own particular set of classes!

I see at least three distinct reasons why you would want to take a non-technical class. But I’d like to focus on the first one, because I believe it’s the most important one to spend time thinking about. If you don’t read everything, at least read this first section.

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A few months ago, my friend put forth an interesting question: What happens to the number of last names over time? It is common to hear about a family name dying with a last descendant who never had any children. That suggests that it is possible that in the future, we will all have just one of a handful of last names, as most of them will have died off. Yet, I would expect that if it could happen, it should have happened by now, or at the very least, I would be able to discern some kind of sign suggesting a trend toward fewer last names. But the number and diversity of last names on Earth is quite remarkable, and it’s still a uncommon thing for two unrelated people to meet and have the same last name.

Anyway, in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to write a small Ruby script that would simulate the progression of last names over many generations, just to see what the end result might be. I had an enjoyable time exploring the problem, and ended up with some interesting results.

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the amazing world of littleBits. I had been taking an electrical engineering course last semester, spending lots of time in lab playing with circuits, so I was especially excited to see such an innovative product that made it so easy for kids to explore the world of electronics and build their own toys out of them!

littleBits is like LEGOs for electronics: they have a variety of different electrical components that snap together with magnetics to create all sorts of different circuits. For example, you could snap the power source component, the knob component, and the LED component, and as you turn the knob, the LED will turn dimmer and brighter. littleBits has already developed all sorts of creative bits, as they call them, to create a wide variety of electronic circuits, including motion sensor inputs to DC motor outputs. You can see all of them here

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Oftentimes when we having a conversation with a friend, and we are telling a story about something that happened, we will refer to other people in the story as “my friend,” “my other friend,” and so on, avoiding mentioning their names. The logic is that it is probably better leave out the names, as they would confuse the listener, who probably wouldn’t remember them anyway.

However, I’ve found that when I’m having a conversation with a good friend, and we’re sharing a very personal story that is important to one of us, it distances the listener when we avoid mentioning names, and instead continually repeat a phrase like “my friend” or “my girlfriend” throughout the story.

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In recent times, it seems that there has been continual negativity against social media and social network-based entrepreneurship. They’ve been continually criticized for adding minimal value to society and being opportunistic. Other times, they’re viewed as young people who just want to start a company for the sake of starting a company. Indeed, I agree that social media and social network-based problems are not the most important issues that our society faces today. I think that much of the criticism of the changed VC landscape and the resulting short-termed thinking of investors is quite valid, but I believe that the criticism sometimes goes a little far when it begins to condemn the individuals who are starting these companies (which I’ll refer to for the rest of this post as social media startups).

The primary criticism of social media startups is that they are not adding much value to society or the economy, and that their talents, capital, and efforts would be much better spent solving “real” problems like education, energy, or our healthcare system. While this is certainly true, it’s also quite an unfair criticism to make. Before giving any proper critique, one should always consider the likely alternatives to the object of criticism — or else they risk wasting their breath on something that can’t be easily changed or being unfair by criticizing something that, although flawed, turns out to be the better than most other options. I believe that most criticism of social media startups fails to do the latter.

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What makes someone a master of facilitating meetings?

When people teach others how to run effective meetings, they usually cover specific meeting techniques that can be used. Here are some of the most commons ones:

  • Allow everyone a chance to speak, and actively encourage reticent participants.
  • Use an agenda, schedule each agenda item (as opposed to just listing them), and send it out before the meeting.
  • Create a list of action items to follow up on after the meeting, with assigned persons of responsibility and deadlines.

Implementing these techniques will undoubtedly make your meetings more effective, but I feel that these recommendations miss the high-level skills that are often more subtle to articulate. The actions above will help anyone become competent at running meetings, but there is much more that is needed to become a true master at meetings.

Briefly, I discuss two skills I believe are core to any outstanding meeting facilitator. While my points may be less actionable than many of the techniques you can find online, I believe they provide a valuable framework for evaluating yourself as an effective leader during meetings. Self-awareness is the first step to personal growth!

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I’ve been spending more time exploring the biotechnology startup world lately, and it’s quite interesting to see its many differences from the consumer web startup world that I’ve become familiar with. In particular, I’ve noticed many ways in which their executive teams differ in their structure and presentation on websites.

In this post, I’m going to list some observations that I’ve made, and then give some explanations that will hopefully account for these observations. I’ve picked a few startup team pages that I’ll be basing my observations on.

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Most .vimrc files that I’ve seen are quite long and unwieldy, often extending to upwards of 300 lines of code. The .vimrc becomes a mess of code as it is built up over the years, just a few lines at a time. Many people try to resolve this issue by breaking the .vimrc down into sections, often with the help of comments or fold markers. This makes it much easier to read, but it isn’t a perfect solution. I still find myself having to scroll around the .vimrc to find the line of I want to change or to find a place I can insert a new line of vimscript.

There’s a much better solution for organizing the .vimrc, thanks to the ability to source other vimscripts from within a vimscript. I’ve broken up my own .vimrc file into 8 smaller files, and I include them into my main .vimrc file by using the source function. Here’s what it looks like:

set nocompatible
behave xterm
filetype plugin indent on
syntax on

source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/filetypes.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/looks.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/mappings.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/misc.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/plugin_configs.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/plugins.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/settings.vim
source $HOME/.vim/vimrc/spelling.vim

" Source a local vimrc if it exists
if filereadable(expand("$HOME/.vimrc.local"))
  source $HOME/.vimrc.local

Now each of my files are much smaller and easier to manage! It’s also quite simple to navigate to each of these files. I’ve set up ; to open up a tab with the .vimrc, and then I can use vim’s handy gf action to open up the file given by the filename under the cursor. I’ve included a nice way to allow for local .vimrc additions as well.

If you’re interested, check out my vimfiles on github here: https://github.com/thenovices/dotfiles