Wednesday, December 03, 2014

More quick links

More of what caught my attention lately:
  • "Make infinite computing resources available internally ... Give teams the resources they need to experiment ... All employees should be limited only by their ability rather than an absence of resources or an inability to argue convincingly for more." ([1] [2])

  • "Accept that failures will always happen and guard ... [against] cascading failures by purposefully causing failures" ([1] [2])

  • "The importance of Netflix’s recommendation engine is actually underestimated" ([1] [2])

  • Courts are getting more skeptical about software patents ([1])

  • Nice way of putting it: "The prevailing business culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines the honesty norm" ([1] [2])

  • "[On] the overcrowded, overstuffed, slow-loading web, you are bound to see a carnival of pop-ups and interstitials — interim ad pages served up before or after your desired content — and scammy come-ons daring you to click. Is it any wonder, really, that this place is dying?" ([1])

  • A very effective social engineering attack "compromised the accounts of C-level executives, legal counsel, regulatory and compliance personnel, scientists, and advisors of more than 100 [major] companies" ([1])

  • An 11 hour Microsoft Azure cloud service outage that impacted just about everyone using it worldwide, including internal users like MSN.com and Xbox Live ([1])

  • Stack traces at arbitrary break points in Google's cloud services running live with near zero overhead ([1] [2])

  • Free SSL certificates (for HTTPS) from a non-profit out of EFF, Mozilla, Cisco, and Akamai ([1])

  • The journal Nature makes its papers free for everyone to read ([1] [2])

  • Combining neural networks like components yields new breakthroughs ([1] [2])

  • Robotics guru Rodney Brooks says, "Relax. Chill ... [The press has a] misunderstanding of how far we really are from having volitional or intentional artificially intelligent beings." ([1])

  • Undersea drones are enabling new feats: "The first time ... the black sea devil anglerfish ... has been filmed alive and in its natural habitat" ([1])

  • Bats jam the sonor of other bats when they're both trying to catch the same insect. It's like a dogfight up there. ([1])

  • Great tutorial on CSS and HTML just launched by Khan Academy and jQuery's John Resig ([1])

  • Fun visualization of the periodic table by how common the elements are in the earth's crust, ocean, human body, and sun ([1])

  • Hilarious parody of the Amazon Echo promotional video ([1])

  • South Park has a surprisingly good (and funny) criticism of freemium games that gets all the issues correct around preying on people with a tendency toward compulsive gambling ([1] [2])

  • Great Dilbert comic on how engineers think of marketing ([1])

  • Good Xkcd comic on over-optimization ([1])

  • Loved this SMBC comic: "He said I wasn't very good at math" ([1]) 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Quick links

What has caught my attention recently:
  • Netflix says the value of its recommendations algorithms is $500M/year ([1])

  • Details on the internals of LinkedIn's recommender system ([1])

  • Fantastic list of some hard and interesting big data problems at Facebook ([1] [2])

  • Google Glass may target "'superhero vision', like seeing in the dark, or magnifying subtle motion or changes" ([1] [2])

  • A claim that Amazon's cloud revenue is $4.7B this year, supposedly x30 bigger than Microsoft ($156M) and x70 Google's ($66M) ([1])

  • "We have a 10 petabyte data warehouse on S3" ([1])

  • Google's Eric Schmidt says, "Our biggest search competitor is Amazon" ([1])

  • Apple was and still is almost entirely an iPhone company ([1])

  • Tablet sales are projected to be flat now, and the growth boom for tablets appears to be done ([1])

  • But, it's interesting that specialized, expensive, and often poorly done custom hardware is getting replaced with a cheap touchscreen tablet ([1])

  • So far, it doesn't look like Windows 10 is going to fix what was wrong with Windows 8 ([1])

  • What? "Microsoft loves Linux" ([1] [2])

  • Delivery startups are back: "Silicon Valley wants to save you from ever having to leave your couch. Will it work this time around?" ([1])

  • Despite the difficulty older adults have with tiny mobile keyboards, older adults and seniors don't use voice search much ([1])

  • Speculation that hardware to enable gesture control on mobile phones will be widespread on new phones next year ([1])

  • A claim that "solar will soon reach price parity with conventional electricity in well over half the nation: 36 states" ([1])

  • "HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printer can crank out objects 10 times faster than any machine that’s on the market today ... 3D print heads that can operate 10,000 nozzles at once, while tracking designs to a five-micron precision." ([1] [2])

  • Is biology about to be transformed by the use of many drones to gather lots of data? ([1] [2])

  • More evidence that some of the best innovations come from combining ideas from two very separate fields ([1])

  • "Every success in AI redefines it. But we haven't just been redefining what we mean by AI-we've been redefining what it means to be human [and intelligent]." ([1])

  • "China is merely regaining a title that it has held for much of recorded history" ([1])

  • Funny Dilbert comic on multitasking and checking e-mail too often ([1])

  • The Onion: "This already vanishing glimmer of pleasure is exactly what we've come to expect from Apple" ([1])

  • Great SMBC comic: "The humans aren't doing what the math says. The humans must be broken." ([1])

Saturday, October 25, 2014

At what point is an over-the-air TV antenna too long to be legal?

You can get over-the-air HDTV signals using an antenna. This antenna gets a better, stronger signal with less interference if it is direct line-of-sight and as near as possible to the broadcast towers. So, you might want an antenna that is up high or even some distance away to get the best signal.

But if you try to do this, you immediately run into a question: At what point does that antenna become too long to be legal or the signal from the antenna is transmitted in a way where it is no longer legal?

Let's say I put an antenna behind my TV hooked up with a wire. That's obviously legal and what many people currently do.

Let's say I put an antenna outside on top of a tree or my garage and run a wire inside. Still seems obviously legal.

Let's say I put an antenna on top of my roof. Still clearly fine.

Let's say I put it on my neighbor's roof and run a wire to my TV. Still ok?

Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my WiFi network and transmit the signal using my local area network instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit the signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, but my neighbor won't do this for free. I have to pay a small amount of rent to my neighbor for the space on his roof used by my antenna. I also have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit its signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok?

Let's say, like before, I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal. But, this time, I buy the antenna from my neighbor at the beginning (and, like before, I own it now). Is that okay?

Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal, but now I rent or lease the antenna from my neighbor. Still ok? If this is not ok, which part is not ok? Is it suddenly ok if I replace the internet connection with a direct microwave relay or hardwired connection?

Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a neighbor's roof three houses away. Still ok?

Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a roof on a building five blocks away. Still ok?

Let's say I rent an antenna on top of a skyscraper in downtown Seattle and have the signal sent to me over the internet. Not ok?

The Supreme Court recently ruled Aereo is illegal. Aereo put small antennas in a building and rented them to people. The only thing they did beyond the last thing above is time-shifting, so they would not necessary send the signal from the antenna immediately, but instead store it, and only transmit it when demanded.

You might think it's the time shifting that's the problem, but that didn't seem to be what the Supreme Court said. Rather, they said the intent of the 1976 amendments to US copyright law prohibit community antennas (which is one antenna that sends its signal to multiple homes), labelling those a "public performance". They said Aereo's system was similar in function to a community antenna, despite actually having multiple antennas, and violated the intent of the 1976 law.

So, the question is, where is the line? Where does my antenna become too distant, transmit using the wrong methods, or involve too many payments to third parties in the operation of the antenna that it becomes illegal? Can it not be longer than X meters? Not transmit its signal in particular ways? Not require rent for the equipment or space on which the antenna sits? Not store the signal at the antenna and transmit it only on demand? What is the line?

I think this question is interesting for two reasons. First, as an individual, I would love to have a personal-use over-the-air HDTV antenna that gets a much better reception than the obstructed and inefficient placement behind my TV, but I don't know at what point it becomes illegal for me to place an antenna far away from the TV. Second, I suspect many others would like a better signal from their HDTV antenna too, and I'd love to see a startup (or any group) that helped people set up these antennas, but it is very unclear what it might be legal for a startup to do.

Thoughts?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why can't I buy a solar panel somewhere else in the US and get a credit for the electricity from it?

Seattle City Light has a clever project where, instead of installing solar panels on your house where they might be obscured by trees or buildings, you can buy into a solar panel installation on top of a building in a more efficient location and get a credit for the electricity generated on your electric bill.

Why stop there? Why can't I buy a solar panel in a very different location and get the electricity from it?

Phoenix, Arizona has about twice the solar energy efficiency of Seattle. Why can't I buy a solar panel and enjoy the electricity credit from that solar panel when it is installed in a nice sunny spot in the Southwest?

This doesn't require shipping the actual electricity to your home. Instead, you fund an installation of solar panels on top of a building in an area of the US with high solar energy efficiency, then get a credit for that electricity on your monthly electricity bill.

I suppose, at some boring financing level, this starts to resemble a corporate bond, with an initial payment yielding a stream of payments over time, but people wouldn't see it that way. The attraction would be installing solar panels and getting a credit on your energy bill without installing solar panels on your own home. Perhaps the firm arranging the installations and working out the deals with local utilities could be treating the entire thing as the equivalent of marketing bonds to people who like solar energy, but the attraction to people is that visceral appeal of a near $0 electricity bill they see every month from the solar panels they feel like they own and installed.

Even with the overhead pulled out by the company selling this and arranging deals with local utilities so this all appears on your local electricity bill, the credit on your electricity bill still should be much higher than you could possibly get installing panels on your own home with all its obstructions and cloudy weather. Solar generation in an ideal location in the US easily can generate twice as much power as what is available locally, on your rooftop.

So, why hasn't someone done this? Why can't I buy solar panels and have them installed not on my own home, but in some much better spot?

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • 12% of Harvard is enrolled in CS 50: "In pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future" ([1])

  • Excellent "What If?" nicely shows the value of back-of-the-envelope calculations and re-thinking what exactly it is you want to do ([1])

  • The US has almost no competition, only local monopolies, for high speed internet ([1] [2])

  • You can't take two large, dysfunctional, underperforming organizations, mash them together, and somehow make diamonds. When you take two big messes and put them together, you just get a bigger mess. ([1])

  • "Yahoo was started nearly 20 years ago as a directory of websites ... At the end of 2014, we will retire the Yahoo Directory." ([1] [2])

  • Investors think that Yahoo is essentially worthless ([1])

  • "At a moment when excitement about the future of robotics seems to have reached an all-time high (just ask Google and Amazon), Microsoft has given up on robots" ([1])

  • "Firing a bunch of tremendously smart and creative people seems misguided. But hey—at least they own Minecraft!" ([1])

  • "Macs still work basically the same way they did a decade ago, but iPhones and iPads have an interface that's specifically designed for multi-touch screens" ([1] [2])

  • On the difficulty of doing startups ([1] [2])

  • "Be glad some other sucker is fueling the venture capital fire" ([1])

  • "Just how antiquated the U.S. payments system has become" ([1])

  • Is everyone grabbing money from online donations to charities? Visa's charge fee on charities is only 1.35%, but the lowest online payment system for charities charges 2.2% and most charge much more than that. ([1])

  • "For most people, the risk of data loss is greater than the risk of data theft" ([1])

  • Password recovery "security questions should go away altogether. They're so dangerous that many security experts recommend filling in random gibberish instead of real answers" ([1])

  • Brilliantly done, free, open source, web-based puzzle game with wonderfully dark humor about ubiquitous surveillance ([1])

  • How Udacity does those cool transparent hands in its videos ([1])

  • There's just a bit of interference when you move your hand above the phone, just enough interference to detect gestures without using any additional power or sensors ([1] [2])

  • Small, low power wireless devices powered by very small fluctuations in temperature ([1] [2])

  • Cute intuitive interface for transferring data between PC and mobile ([1] [2])

  • "Federal funding for biomedical research [down 20%] ... forcing some people out of science altogether" ([1])

  • Another fun example of virtual tourism ([1])

  • Ig Nobel Prizes: "Dogs prefer to align themselves to the Earth's north-south magnetic field while urinating and defecating" ([1])

  • Xkcd: "In CS, it can be hard to explain the difference between the easy and the virtually impossible" ([1] [2])

  • Dilbert: "That process sounds like a steaming pile of stupidity that will beat itself to death in a few years" ([1])

  • Dilbert on one way to do job interviews ([1])

  • The Onion: "Startup Very Casual About Dress Code, Benefits" ([1])

  • Hilarious South Park episode, "Go Fund Yourself", makes fun of startups ([1])

Monday, September 08, 2014

The problem with personalized education

Personalized education has had some spectacular failures lately, in large part due to how tone-deaf the backers have been to the needs of teachers, parents, and students.

The right way to do personalization is to prove you're useful first. Personalization is just a tool. If a new tool doesn't work better than the old tool, it's useless. There's no reason to use personalized education unless it works better than unpersonalized education. A tool needs to be useful.

Teachers are already overworked and, after having been burned too many times on supposedly exciting new technologies that fail to help, correctly are cynical about tech startups coming in and demanding something of them. If some tech startup isn't helping a teacher get something done they need to get done, it's a bad tool and it's useless.

Parents are leery of companies who say they only want to help and what corporations are doing with the data they have on their children, correctly so given all the marketing abuses that have happened in the past.

Kids don't want more boring busywork to do -- they get enough of that already -- and don't see why anything this company is talking about helps them or is useful to them.

If a company wants to succeed in personalized education, it should:
  1. Be useful, noticeably raise test scores
  2. Not require additional busy work
  3. Be optional
  4. Have no marketing whatsoever, only use data to help
I think there are plenty of examples of how this might work. I would like to see a company offer a free Duolingo-like pre-algebra and algebra app that jumps students ahead rapidly as they answer questions correctly and spends more time on similar problems after a question is wrong. The app would be completely optional for students to use, but, when students use it, their test scores increase.

I would like to see a company use the existing standardized tests required by several states, analyze the incorrect answers to identify concepts a student is not understanding, and then print short worksheets targeting only those missed concepts for teachers to hand out to each student. The worksheets would be free and arrive in teachers' mailboxes. If the teacher doesn't want to hand them out, that's not a problem, but test scores go up for the classrooms where the teachers do hand them out. So, even if most teachers don't hand them out at first and most students throw them away at first, over time, more and more teachers will start handing them out and more and more students will do them, as only helps those who do.

In both of these examples, a startup could set up from the beginning to run large scale experiments, showing different problems to different students, and learning what raises test scores, what designs and lesson lengths cause students to stop, what concepts are important and which matter less, what can be taught easily through this and what cannot, what people enjoy, and what works.

When a company comes in and says, "Give us your data, teachers, parents, and kids, and do all this work. Maybe we'll boost your test scores for you later," they're being arrogant and tone-deaf. Everyone responds, "I don't believe you. How about you prove you're useful first? I'm busy. Do something for me or go away." And they're right to do so.

There likely is a way to do personalized education that everyone would embrace. But that way probably requires proving you're useful first. After all, personalization is just a tool.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

More quick links

More of what caught my attention lately:
  • The overwhelming majority of smartphone users set up their phone once, then barely ever download a new app again ([1] [2])

  • Cool and successful use of speculative execution in cloud computing for games, trading off extra CPU and bandwidth for the ability to hide network latency ([1])

  • Infrared vision on your phone ([1] [2])

  • How easy is it to get people to memorize hard-to-crack random 56-bit passwords, equivalent to about 12 random letters or 6 words? ([1] [2])

  • Desalination needs warm water, data centers need to be cooled, why not put them together? Clever idea. ([1])

  • It's easy to overhype this, but it's still pretty cool, transmitting data (0 and 1 bits) directly brain-to-brain without implants (using magnetic stimulation of the brain and EEG reading of the brain, both from the surface of the scalp) with relatively low error rates (5-15%). Data rates are extremely low at 2-3 bits/minute, but it's still interesting that it's possible at all. ([1])

  • Xiaomi's remarkable iPhone clone ([1])

  • Has Amazon sold less than 35k Fire phones? ([1] [2])

  • Facebook publishes a paper which details how its ad targeting works and suggests they will be doing more personalization in the future ([1] [2])

  • "Having a multiyear project with no checks along the way and the promise of one big outcome is not a highly successful approach, in or outside government" ([1] [2])

  • More evidence patent trolls cause real harm. Trolled firms "dramatically reduce R&D spending". ([1])

  • "Using nothing more than a laptop ... [they could] alter the normal timing pattern of the [traffic] lights, turning all the lights along a given route green, for instance, or freezing an intersection with all reds" ([1])

  • Interesting data visualization showing how CD took over in music sales, then got replaced by downloads, all over the last two decades or so ([1])

  • Neat charts on how the strike zone expands on 3 ball counts and contracts on 2 strike counts ([1])

  • Cute SMBC comic on "What is the fastest animal?" ([1])

  • Great SMBC comic on job interviews ([1])

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • Great idea for walking directions: "At times, we do not [want] the fastest route ... When walking, we generally prefer tiny streets with trees over large avenues with cars ... [We] suggest routes that are not only short but also emotionally pleasant." ([1] [2] [3])

  • Cool idea for a drone that autonomously flies a small distance above and behind you while filming in HD ([1] [2])

  • "OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Neither does any other website. It’s not like people have been building these things for very long, or you can go look up a blueprint or something. Most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out." ([1] [2])

  • "Amazon’s cloud revenue now runs almost on par with VMware (VMW), which posted revenue of $5.2 billion last year" ([1])

  • Walmart is getting more aggressive about competing with Amazon on personalization and recommendations ([1])

  • It's important to realize that Amazon could have been a small bookstore on the Web ([1])

  • A lot of us thought the Amazon logo was phallic when it was introduced (worse, it was animated and actually grew from left-to-right). Remarkably, it's lived on for 14 years now. ([1])

  • A big problem with layoffs is not only do you lose some of the people you intended to layoff, but also some of your best employees will pick that time to leave. People with good options won't wait around to experience the chaos and fear; they'll just leave. ([1])

  • "A brand-name USB stick [claims to be] a computer keyboard [device] ... [and then] opens a command window on an attached computer and enters commands that cause it to download and install malicious software." ([1])

  • Financial services and poor computer security: "Our assumption was that, generally speaking, the financial sector had its act together much more" ([1] [2])

  • "NSA employees [were] passing around nude photos that were intercepted in the course of their daily work" ([1] [2])

  • Google Cloud googler says, "It should always be cheaper to run in the cloud no matter what your workload" but that the pricing isn't there yet ([1])

  • Details on Google's remarkably large and fast data warehouse ([1] [2])

  • Cool augmented reality game intended to be played as a passenger in a moving car that creates the terrain and enemies you see in the game based on the stores and buildings around you in the real world ([1])

  • "Astronomers of the 2020s will be swimming in petabytes of data streaming from space and the ground ... [such as] a 3,200-megapixel camera, which will produce an image of the entire sky every few days and over 10 years will produce a movie of the universe, swamping astronomers with data that will enable them to spot everything that moves or blinks in the heavens, including asteroids and supernova explosions." ([1])

  • Data are or data is: "'datum' isn't a word we ever use. So it makes no sense to use the plural when the singular doesn't exist." ([1])

  • The "If Google was a guy" series from CollegeHumor is hilarious (but probably NSFW) ([1] [2] [3])

  • Funny Dilbert comics on a Turing test for management ([1] [2])

  • Cathartic Xkcd comic on defending your thesis ([1])

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

More quick links

More of what caught my attention lately:
  • Crazy cool and the first time I've seen ultrasound used for device-to-device communication outside of research: "Chromecast will be able to pair without Wi-Fi, or even Bluetooth, via an unusual method: ultrasonic tones." ([1])

  • A 3D printer that can print in "any weldable material" including titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel ([1])

  • "You teach Baxter [an inexpensive industrial robot] how to do something by grabbing an arm and showing it what you want, sort of like how you would teach a child to paint" ([1])

  • When trying to use the wisdom of the crowds, you're better off using only the best part of the crowd. ([1])

  • "Americans now appear to trust internet news about as much as newspapers and television news ... not because confidence in internet news is rising, but because confidence in TV news and newspapers has plummeted over the years." ([1])

  • "Microsoft is basically 'done' with Windows 8.x. Regardless of how usable or functional it is or isn't, it has become Microsoft's Vista 2.0 -- something from which Microsoft needs to distance itself." ([1])

  • Google Flights now lets you see everywhere you can fly out of a city (including limiting to non-stops only) and how much it would cost ([1] [2] [3] [4])

  • "Entering the fulfillment center in Phoenix feels like venturing into a realm where the machines, not the humans, are in charge ... The place radiates a non-human intelligence, an overarching brain dictating the most minute movements of everyone within its reach." ([1])

  • Google's location history feature is both fascinating and frightening. If you own an Android device, go to location history, set it to 30 days, and see the detail on where you have been. While it's true that many have this kind of data, it may surprise you to see it all at once.

  • "Vodafone, one of the world's largest mobile phone groups, has revealed the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to all conversations on its networks, saying they are widely used in some of the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe and beyond." ([1])

  • Many "users actually do not attach any signi´Čücant economic value to the security of their systems" ([1] [2])

  • "Ensuring that our patent system 'promotes the progress of science,' rather than impedes it, consistent with the constitutional mandate underlying our intellectual property system" ([1])

  • Smartphones may have hit the limit on how much improvements to screen resolution matter, meaning they will have to compete on other features (like sensors or voice recognition) ([1])

  • "Project Tango can see the world around it in 3D. This would allow developers to make augmented-reality apps that line up perfectly with the real world or make an app that can 3D scan an object or environment." ([1])

  • The selling point of smartwatches is paying $200 to not have to pull your phone out of your pocket, and that might be a tough sell. ([1])

  • "As programmers will tell you, the building part is often not the hardest part: It's figuring out what to build. 'Unless you can think about the ways computers can solve problems, you can't even know how to ask the questions that need to be answered'" ([1])

  • "[No] lectures, discussion sections, midterms ... a pre-test for each subject area ... given a mentor with a graduate degree in the field ... [and] textbooks, tutorials, and other resources. Eventually, they're assessed on how well they understand the concepts." ([1])

  • "A naked mole rat has never once been observed to develop cancer" ([1])

  • Hilarious Colbert Report on the Hachette mess, particularly loved the bit on "Customers who enjoyed this also bought this" at 3:00 in the video ([1])

  • Humor from The Onion: "We want $100 from you, so we’re just going to take it. As a cable subscriber, you really have no other option here" ([1])

  • Humor from the Borowitz Report: "It never would have occurred to me that an enormous corporation with the ability to track over half a billion customers would ever exploit that advantage in any way." ([1])

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • Fun data: "How to tell someone's age when all you know is her name" ([1])

  • "The possibility of proper tricorder technology in the future, scanning a bit of someone's blood and telling you if they have any diseases or anomalous genetic conditions" ([1])

  • Will self-driving vehicles appear first in trucking? ([1])

  • "Apple's moves into the world of fashion and wearable computing" ([1])

  • "Few people try to or want to use tablets like laptops" ([1] [2])

  • "While managers do indeed add value to a company, there’s no particular reason to believe that they add more value to a company than the people who report to them ... [You want] an organization where fairly-compensated people work together as a team, rather than trying to work out the best way to make money for themselves at the expense of their colleagues." ([1])

  • "Each meeting ... spawns even more meetings ... The solution ... reduce default meeting length from 60 to 30 minutes ... limit meetings to seven or fewer participants ... agendas with clear objectives ... materials ... distributed in advance .. on-time start ... early ending, especially if the meeting is going nowhere ... remove ... unnecessary supervisors." ([1])

  • Fun article on the history of the modern office: "The cubicle was actually intended to be this liberating design, and it basically became perverted" ([1])

  • "We were wrong about the first-time shoppers. They did mind registering. They resented having to register when they encountered the page. As one shopper told us, 'I'm not here to enter into a relationship. I just want to buy something.'" ([1])

  • Private investment in broadband infrastructure is actually dropping in the US ([1])

  • "Not only are packets being dropped, but all those not being dropped are also subject to delay. ... They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers ... Shouldn't a broadband consumer network with near monopoly control over their customers be expected, if not obligated, to deliver a better experience than this?" ([1])

  • Fascinating data on cancer shows a surprising lack of linear relationship between aging and cancer ([1] [2])

  • "A wayward spacecraft ISEE-3/ICE was returning to fly past Earth after many decades of wandering through space. It was still operational, and could potentially be sent on a new mission, but NASA no longer had the equipment to talk to it ... crowdfunding project ... commandeer the spacecraft ... awfully long shot ... They are now in command of the ISEE-3 spacecraft." ([1])

  • I love the caption on this comic: "Somebody please do this and post it on YouTube so I can live vicariously through your awesomeness." ([1])

  • Hilarious SMBC comic on privacy and technology ([1])

  • Great SMBC comic: "Wanna play the Bayesian drinking game?" ([1])

  • Hilarious John Oliver segment on net neutrality ([1]) directs people to FCC website to comment, crashing FCC website ([2])

  • Very funny, from The Onion: "New Facebook Feature Scans Profile To Pinpoint Exactly When Things Went Wrong" ([1])

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Project Euler and blending math and computer science for education

Project Euler is a simple and surprisingly good educational tool for a blend of computer science and math. Highly recommended.

You are given a problem (good examples: [1] [2] [3] [4]), go off and work on it in whatever programming language you like using whatever tools you like, and submit your answer (multiple submissions allowed). Simple, but surprisingly fun and interesting.

It's been around for a while (since 2006), and, though I've looked at it a few times, I only recently got addicted to it. It's not, as I first thought, just a series of interview-style coding questions, but a much more interesting set of deeper challenges in math that require programming to explore and solve. It's a great way to refresh on math and fun too.

Honestly, I can't say enough good things about it. I've blown hundreds of hours on some addictive video game before, addicted to the point that it occasionally interferes with work and sleep even, and this has the same feel. It's a great little educational tool and fun as well.

Definitely worth a look. Seems like it'd work for older teenagers too if you're looking for a summer project for a teen that already has some programming skill.

Friday, May 02, 2014

More quick links

More of what has caught my attention lately:
  • Excellent history of Google's love-hate relationship with management (hint: it's mostly hate) ([1])

  • Excellent BBC documentary on Amazon.com, plenty of fun historical tidbits, quite critical in parts, very well done ([1])

  • Excellent charts on the history of wealth concisely summarizing three centuries ([1])

  • Compelling example of virtual tourism ([1])

  • Visually stunning math concepts which are easy to explain ([1])

  • "The most interesting things are happening at the intersection of two fields" ([1])

  • "The largest driver of Facebook’s mobile revenue is app-install ads ... largely purchased by free-to-play game publishers such as King (maker of Candy Crush Saga) and Big Fish Games (the Bejeweled series) ... to target the small percentage of players who will spend hundreds of dollars on in-app purchases." ([1] [2])

  • "When you subtract out the value of Yahoo's stake in Alibaba, the rest of Yahoo is worthless. Indeed, it has negative worth." ([1] [2] [3])

  • "Newspaper print ad revenue has declined 73% in 15 years" ([1])

  • "Microsoft is backtracking on practically every part of the Windows 8 interface that developers abhorred" ([1] [2] [3] [4])

  • Survivor bias in perceptions of startup life and what might be closer to reality: "It's a decision to throw away a large chunk of your precious youth at a venture which is almost certain to fail" ([1] [2])

  • "Many hospitals in the US still use Windows XP on workstations and healthcare devices" ([1])

  • "It's no longer realistic to think that routers, DVRs, or other Internet-connected home appliances aren't worth an attacker's time ... poorly designed 'Internet of Things' devices ... [are] particularly easy to hack" ([1])

  • Newegg exec on patent trolls: "Why those asshats continue to trade at ANY value, I do not know. The world would be a better place without them." ([1])

  • I still don't understand why more tech companies don't provide free food ([1] [2])

  • Humor: "The pain of being the only engineer in a business meeting" ([1])

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Quick links

What has caught my attention lately:
  • Dilbert on A/B testing: "Bend to my will and choose the orange button, you mindless click-puppets!" ([1])

  • Major performance increases on smartphones are disappearing, which will slow sales and reduce revenues ([1] [2])

  • Price war in cloud services ([1])

  • On Facebook buying Oculus: "The dominant reaction to the move could be summed up in three letters: WTF" ([1] [2])

  • Remember this? "Companies could cause their stock prices to increase by simply adding an 'e-' prefix to their name or a '.com' to the end, which one author called 'prefix investing'" ([1] [2])

  • VCs favor pitches from attractive men ([1] [2])

  • "We've known for a while that email providers could look into your inbox, but the assumption was that they wouldn't" ([1] [2])

  • Bad new trend: Apps that covertly mine Bitcoins for someone else ([1] [2])

  • More companies should do this: Run large scale surveys of employees to discover what makes people happy and productive ([1])

  • Combining dissimilar fields is hard, but can also lead to discovering lots of low hanging fruit (at least from where you are standing) that no one else has picked ([1])

  • Good idea from a recent Google paper: Mine the web to build up knowledge of objects that are likely and unlikely to co-occur, then use that to accept or reject candidates during object recognition ([1] [2])

  • Cool throwback idea from a recent MSR paper: Old school circuit-switched networks in the data center using cheap commodity FPGAs ([1] [2])

  • “There doesn't need to be a protective shell around our researchers where they think great thoughts" ([1] [2])

  • Surprisingly compelling results: Generate likely 3D models of facial appearance solely from DNA ([1] [2])

  • Stem cells used to grow strong muscles that repair themselves when damaged ([1])

  • The ancient Greeks and Persians had to occasionally fight off lions ([1] [2])

  • Great visualization of conditional probability ([1])

  • Galleries of hilariously useless items ([1] [2])

Monday, March 03, 2014

More quick links

More of what caught my attention recently:
  • Cool new tech, especially for mobile, detecting gesture movements from the changes they make to ambient wireless signals, uses a fraction of the power of other techniques ([1] [2] [3])

  • Also for mobile: "The big trick here is ... two [camera] lenses with two different focal lengths. One lens is wide-angle, while the other is at 3x zoom ... magnify more distant subjects ... improved low-light performance ... noise is reduced ... just as we would if we had one big imaging sensor instead of two little ones ... [and] depth analysis allows ... [auto] blurring out of backgrounds in portrait shots, quicker autofocus, and augmented reality." ([1])

  • "These are not the first artificial muscles to have been created, but they are among the first that are inexpensive and store large amounts of energy" ([1])

  • "Tesla is a glimpse into a future where cars and computers coexist in seamless harmony" ([1])

  • "Fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields. Those who can bend the power of the computer to their will – computational thinking but computer science in greater depth – will be positioned for greater success than those who can’t." ([1] [2])

  • The CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Netflix, and Yahoo have CS degrees

  • Details on fixing healthcare.gov. What's so impressive is how much they changed the culture in such a short time, from a hierarchical structure where no one would take any responsibility to an egalitarian one where everyone was focused on solving problems. ([1])

  • Clever idea, advertise to find experts on the Web and then get them to answer questions for free by enticing them into playing a little quiz game ([1] [2])

  • "A key to Google’s epic success was the discipline the company maintained around its hiring ... During his first seven years, the executive team met every week to review every single hiring candidate." ([1] [2])

  • "Peter Norvig, Google's research director, said recently that the company employs 'less than 50% but certainly more than 5%' of the world's leading experts on machine learning" ([1])

  • Yahoo is trying to rebuild its research group, which was destroyed by its previous CEO ([1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6])

  • Software increasingly needs to be aware of its power consumption, the cost of power, and the availability of power, and be able to reduce its power consumption when necessary ([1] [2])

  • "Viewers with a buffer-free experience watch 226% more and viewers receiving better picture quality watch 25% longer" ([1])

  • Gaming the most popular lists in the app stores: "Total estimated cost to reach the top ten list: $96,000" ([1] [2])

  • "The Rapiscan 522 B x-ray system used to scan carry-on baggage in airports worldwide ... runs on the outdated Windows 98 operating system, stores user credentials in plain text, and includes a feature called Threat Image Projection used to train screeners by injecting .bmp images of contraband ... [that] could allow a bad guy to project phony images on the X-ray display." ([1])

  • "It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person." ([1])

  • "Ohhh there's not another cable company, is there? Oh that's right we're the only one in town." ([1])

  • It "sounds like it's straight out of a sci-fi horror flick: they thawed some 30,000-year-old permafrost and allowed any viruses present to infect some cells" ([1])

  • Very funny if you (or your kids) are a fan of Portal, educational too, and done by NASA ([1])

  • NPR's "Wait Wait" did a segment on Amazon's "Customers who bought this", very funny ([1])

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • Colorful description of Google's servers in 1999: "A thin layer of cork to protect the motherboards from the cookie trays on which they were mounted ... Rack switches were bungee corded to the water pipes above the cage to prevent them from toppling off the tops of the racks." ([1])

  • A critical part of the 1971 break-in that exposed the FBI spied on civil rights groups: "One of them wrote a note and tacked it to the door they wanted to enter: 'Please don't lock this door tonight'" ([1])

  • "We have no evidence that any of this [NSA] surveillance makes us safer ... Bulk collection of data and metadata is an ineffective counterterrorism tool .... And ... it's extremely freaky that Congress has such a difficult time getting information out of the NSA." ([1] [2] [3])

  • "Chromebooks have come from nowhere to grab ... 19% of the K-12 market for mobile computers in the U.S. in 2013 ... In 2012, Chromebooks represented less than 1% of the market" ([1] [2])

  • Amazon (and online in general) is killing off physical stores rapidly: "Borders has closed ... All major music retailers are out of business ... recently announced that it would close its remaining 300 company-owned Blockbuster stores ... Circuit City has closed ... all of the computer superstores are long gone ... Staples ... has closed 107 stores in the past year ... Sales at Sears have declined for 27 straight quarters" ([1] [2])

  • The T-mobile CEO says, "This industry blows. It's just broken ... total horseshit ... a pile of spectrum waiting to be turned into a capability." ([1])

  • "Less than two years after acquiring it, Google is ditching Motorola" ([1] [2] [3] [4])

  • Microsoft in a nutshell: "Basically, consumer PC sales are tanking, but sales to enterprises are strong." ([1] [2] [3])

  • Someone should do something about this: "Sales of banner and video ads slipped 6% in the fourth quarter and search ad sales fell 4%. Yahoo was once the Web's advertising leader, but over the past several years has fallen behind rivals Google and Facebook ... Many are wondering if Yahoo has what it takes to compete in the online ad space with companies like Google and Facebook" ([1] [2])

  • "Open [plan] offices ... were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction" ([1] [2])

  • Target's credit cards were stolen through its website. Amazon used to run Target's website for them, but Target dropped Amazon in 2011 and outsourced to others, probably because Target execs thought it would be cheaper. ([1] [2] [3] [4])

  • “Patents [trolls] are unproductive, undead, unholy, and intent on sucking economic and entrepreneurial lifeblood” ([1] [2])

  • The studios have been fighting for DRM for 35+ years and been awful at every step: "In 1976 ... the studios ... said that home taping was illegal. They hoped to force ... a royalty for each device and cassette sold or to withdraw [the devices] from the market" ([1])

  • TouchDevelop from Microsoft Research is impressive, similar to Scratch, teaches kids to code ([1] [2])

  • A funny and accurate summary of what research labs look like in industry ([1])

  • Seems that viruses have won the selfish gene war: "Viruses are by far the most abundant biological entities in the oceans, comprising approximately 94% of the nucleic-acid-containing particles" ([1] [2])

  • Connectivity in a network determines whether you get a system where people benefit from their position or their talent ([1] [2])

  • Amazing SIGGRAPH video using evolutionary optimization to discover muscle placement and controllers for 3D models ([1] [2])

  • For we old geeks, a Mac Plus emulated in the browser, amazing ([1] [2] [3])

  • The CEOs of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Yahoo all have Computer Science degrees ([1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

  • "Software developer rose from No. 7 in 2013 to this year's most attractive profession" ([1] [2])

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Shouldn't wearable computing let you be super human?

Wearable computing so far seems to be going after mimicking a tablet, but I wonder if the real success will be in augmented perception.

Current smartwatches are clumsy. They require an impossible tradeoff between having enough space for a touchscreen and not having a brick on your wrist. The early prototypes of smart glasses like Google Glass are similar, focusing on screens floating in front of your vision and existing smartphone features like recording video and taking pictures, but having difficulty cleanly handling input and the tasks you would use a smartphone or a tablet for. Some of this may be solvable with sufficiently perfect voice and gesture recognition, but that remains impossible with any tech that looks likely to be available in the next few years.

What no one seems to be asking is, do people really want a tablet on their wrist or tablet-like screen floating in front of their vision when they already have a smartphone in their pocket? Why would they want something they wear that is just like the smartphone they already have?

But what if you could put on a pair of normal-looking glasses (or contacts) and insert a small device into an ear, and then suddenly you are subtly superhuman?

I bet a lot of people would like to be able to see in infrared, have telescopic and microscopic vision, and be able to hear outside of the normal range of frequencies and volumes. I bet people would like to be able to see microexpressions, pupil dilation, skin flushes, and pulse rate changes easily. I bet people would enjoy small informational hints when they walk around like being reminded of names and who people are when they are in meetings or important road or directional cues brightened and enhanced.

From a tech perspective, this avoids a lot of the hard I/O problems plaguing the UX on current attempts at smartwatches and on Google Glass. You don't need a large touchscreen on your wrist. You don't need to type. You don't need perfect voice and gesture recognition to make this work. Augmented perception may be closer to achievable with what we already have: tiny HD cameras, virtual displays, and access to computation. And it provides something useful that we don't already have. Shouldn't augmented perception be the goal of wearable computing?

Tablets are pretty good at being tablets. And smartphones are pretty good at being smartphones. Wearable computing, like glasses and watches, shouldn't be mimicking what's already out there. They should let us do something new, something we cannot currently do.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • Windows 8 has caused a big drop in PC sales to businesses, most of which has been picked up by Google Chromebooks, not by Apple ([1])

  • Eric Schmidt said, "Every once in a while a perfect storm occurs. Your competitors make some mistakes. You end up with the right product at the right time. There are really no other good choices of products ... That's what happened with Android." ([1])

  • Both the Google Nexus 5 and Moto G are being reviewed as the best phones on the market at half the price of the competition ([1] [2])

  • The iPhone wasn't created because Apple wanted to build a great phone but as a defensive move to protect iPod sales ([1])

  • Interesting experiment: "Zappos is going holacratic: no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy" ([1])

  • Great summary of Netflix's internal practices: "Be honest, and treat people like adults" ([1] [2])

  • Simple and apparently extremely effective idea for combating click fraud, just consider anything with bad ROI for the advertiser to be click fraud ([1] [2])

  • Hal Varian says, "Small datasets will become increasingly inadequate to deal with new problems." ([1] [2])

  • A big difference between our machine learning systems and how humans learn is how to correct errors. "You don't lock [a friend] in a room with terabytes of training data and ask him to spend a week updating his parameters." ([1] [2])

  • Computers make noises when they work harder, and you can use that to crack encryption ([1] [2] [3])

  • That clickthrough agreement you just accepted? Now your computer is owned and mining bitcoins for someone else. ([1])

  • Sounds paranoid, but it appears to be true that the government has a trail on your location (where you have been and where you are) if you have your cell phone on ([1])

  • "The Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies ... half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts ... repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft" ([1])

  • A/B testing international aid ([1])

  • "The results consistently showed that drugs and exercise produced almost exactly the same results." ([1])

  • Entanglement works by punching a hole through space-time? ([1])

  • Xkcd on hashtags: "The cycle seems to be 'we need these symbols to clarify what types of things we're referring to!' followed by 'wait, it turns out words already do that.'" ([1])

  • "Chase execs probably thought they were going to be inundated with questions, like, 'What steps can I take to try to become as totally awesome as all of you?'" ([1])

  • The Onion mocks internet ads: "This entire industry we call journalism exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads. Big, stupid ads." ([1])

  • Impressive demo video of an unusual means of motion: "A cube that can jump, balance, and walk" ([1])

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Game Maven: Learn to code by writing games

I just launched Game Maven from Crunchzilla. It’s a new interactive tutorial -- part of the series that includes Code Monster and Code Maven -- that is a step-by-step walkthrough of writing the code for three casual video games.

The games themselves are really fun. One is a simple vaguely Asteroids-like base defense game. The second is a sort of Angry Birds-like cannon game complete with physics and particle system effects. The third is a platformer in the spirit of Mario Bros with auto-generated infinite levels.

Game Maven is an interactive tutorial using live code. Players learn step-by-step how to build each game, getting a chance to customize and play with the games as they build them. Game Maven is an immersive educational experience with a focus on action over explanation. Players build right away with code, learning about coding by coding. Be brave, make mistakes, try things, and see what happens.

Game Maven assumes some programming experience and an interest in writing games. It’s for adults and older teens (age 16+). It’s designed for a variety of motivation levels, from those that just click through the lessons and skip most of the work, to those that do every lesson, understand every line of code, and spend hours customizing the games, everyone learns from the experience.

If you have a teenager interested in coding and writing games, please let them know about Game Maven. Please tell your friends with teenagers about Game Maven. If you want to play with writing games yourself, go give it a try. And please let me know what you think!

Friday, November 01, 2013

Quick links

What caught my attention lately:
  • Jeff Bezos on what innovators need: "A willingness to fail. A willingness to be misunderstood. And maintaining a childlike wonder in the world." ([1])

  • "Agreement feels good -- hey, we get along great! -- but it's not the best for innovation. Why? Because if everybody has the same idea, then you only have one idea." ([1])

  • "It's amazing the amount of difference a cultural intolerance to bullshit can make" ([1])

  • "Two engineers with close ties to Google exploded in profanity when they saw the drawing" ([1] [2])

  • "Amazon has boundless ambition. It wants to eat global retail ... the largest retailer in the history of the world ... [It is] a secret in plain sight." ([1])

  • I love Duolingo and Duolingo's business model: "students receive high-quality, completely free language education, and organizations get translation services powered by the students ... two major publishers are financing our operation by [our students] translating their content." ([1] [2])

  • "Pinterest now valued at $3.8 billion, on a constant valuation ratio of infinity times revenues" ([1])

  • "Microsoft is continuing to fire on all cylinders with its enterprise products and services and has a ways to go on the consumer side" ([1])

  • The "screamingly obvious ... solution ... Offer regular Windows on regular computers, offer TileWorld on tablets" ([1] [2])

  • "Apple is trying to maintain premium pricing in a market in which competitors are increasingly selling high-quality iPad alternatives for significantly lower prices." ([1])

  • Patents should only be used "to promote the progress of science and useful arts" ([1] [2] [3])

  • "The most popular films are not even available through preferred legal channels" ([1] [2] [3])

  • I do not think it means what you think it means: "No banner ads on the Google homepage or Web search results pages… ever." ([1] [2] [3])

  • Gesture recognition (like the Kinect, but just using a laptop or tablet's existing webcam) is going to become more common? ([1])

  • Instead of trying to recycle plastic, turn it into oil: "Each barrel of oil costs about $10 to produce" ([1] [2])

  • Very clever idea for moving small robots: "No external moving parts. Nonetheless, they’re able to climb over and around one another, leap through the air, roll across the ground ... [a] flywheel is braked, it imparts its angular momentum to the cube" ([1])

  • Frightening that you can see results this large with electrical stimulation of the brain on an area known to be important for compliance with social norms ([1])

  • Four-legged, all terrain drones coming to a war near you ([1] [2])

  • Curious claim about US education: "When controlling for demographic factors, public schools are doing a better job academically than private schools" ([1])

  • Strange, I don't remember this, back in 2001, Jeff Bezos did a weird Taco Bell ad. ([1])

  • A dark but hilarious Halloween comic from SMBC: "I'm expectation of death" ([1])

  • The Onion: "CEO worked his way up from son of CEO" ([1] [2])

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I was wrong on Netflix

I was wrong on Netflix. A few years ago, I saw their pricing changes (which overpriced DVD rentals) and streaming catalog changes (switching to only buying whatever they could get cheap, very few hit movies in there, and then making a little of their own content) and thought this new strategy of becoming HBO-lite was headed for disaster.

But Netflix has done well. People add them on as an addition to cable and DVDs, not as a replacement, essentially as an HBO-lite. Competitors -- like Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube -- aren't acting as a replacement to Netflix, but, at best, an addition. Redbox is eating away at Netflix's neglected but profitable DVD business, but that hasn't hurt Netflix as much as I thought it would. And no one -- not even Apple, Amazon, Sony, Hulu, Walmart/Vudu, or Google/YouTube -- has been able to offer a full cable TV replacement, a streaming service with a massive, nearly exhaustive catalog of high quality content.

I was wrong about Netflix's new strategy. They've done pretty well with their HBO-lite strategy of being one of several (and the most popular) streaming service for TV-like entertainment. There is still the question of what happens when someone launches something with a much better UX and catalog than Netflix, but that may never happen.