Critical Section

Archive: May 2003

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Thursday,  05/01/03  09:49 PM

I haven't mentioned SARS recently, but it continues to spread and kill.  Interestingly here is the entire genome of the SARS virus.  Weird to think that this seemingly meaningless string of just four different letters encodes something which actually kills people, isn't it?  So far scientists say there are Few Clues from SARS Gene Sequence.

Mean Mr. Mustard notes "we are voting with our bases".  First the announcement that the U.S. is withdrawing its military presence in Saudi Arabia, and now Donald Rumsfeld indicates we're pulling out of Germany, too.  Isn't it great the way the  Bush administration does stuff, instead of just talking about it?

The Daily Standard salutes John Howard, the Australian prime minister, for his loyalty to the U.S.  Yep, just as we should boycott French and German companies, we should patronize English and Australian ones.  Personally I'm drinking as much Penfolds Shiraz as possible.

Even as President Bush is announcing that Major Combat is Over, Yahoo reports Anti-war activists say their cause is not dead.  What is it with these people?

Ken Layne helps the NYTimes with a little math.  Does 25 = 170,000?  No.  [ via InstaPundit ]

So what did you think of the Bush carrier landing / speech?  I didn't see either one.  The carrier landing was a stunt, sure, but it wasn't a kitschy one.  Landing a plane on a carrier is how you get to a carrier, and it is a little dangerous.  Early returns on the speech are positive.  Scrappleface has a great take on this...

Yep, that's the idea.
[ from Dave Winer ]
iPod 7500 songs = 7500 dollars
Jeremy Zawodny ponders the iTunes Music Store, and wonders why it can't learn what you like and dislike, and make suggestions accordingly.  (a la Amazon and Netflix.)  So far we have a 1.0 product, Jeremy, which is pretty cool; but I bet there is a lot more which will be added going forward...

Wired ponders whether iTunes is a Bargain or Rip-Off?  They mention the $.50 price point I think is the true sweet spot.  Time will tell, according to Billboard Apple sold 275,000 tracks in the first 18 hours.  { Hey, did you ever think Billboard would be authoritative on the success of online commerce? }

Ed Cone discusses the curious case of media like newspapers which prohibit their employees from blogging.  "Creativity is not a finite resource. It feeds on itself. As a writer, I write better and more fluidly the more I write. It's more like a candle lighting another candle than a ladle emptying a pot."  [ via Dave Winer ]

This is interesting: Google has hired Lise Buyer, a high-profile financial analyst.  Google is arguably the most watched private company in America, with a projected public value of $5B; Lise would be very helpful in crafting an IPO story and managing investor relations afterward....

You've Got Mail dept: AOL reports it blocked 2B spam emails in one day.  Wow.


Friday,  05/02/03  08:31 AM

A little morning bloggin' while reading the news...

Victor David Hanson needs a blog!  But in the meantime he writes articles for NRO, and others link to him; a kind of virtual blog.  Anyway, his latest Geriatric Teenagers is right on the money, as usual.  The Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis is so full of contradictions you hardly get credit for pointing them out, unless you write as well as Victor...  [ via VodkaPundit ]

So, are you in a hurry to try Windows Server 2003?  I didn't think so.  Isn't it interesting that many companies figure "thrice burned, twice shy"?  According to C|Net, 60-70% of U.S. companies are still on NT 4, and are in the process of upgrading to Windows 2000 (which came out three years ago).  Gartner is quoted as saying they don't expect many Windows 2000 customers will upgrade until around 2005.

Did you see this story?  A mountain climber pinned by boulders for five days freed himself by amputating his own arm with a pocket knife.  Wow.

Finally, let me be the 2 millionth blogger to comment on Why Blogs Haven't Stormed the Business World.  So, the premise is foolish.  Why would blogs storm the business world, anyway?  We're talking about a personal publishing tool, not something to boost productivity.  The essence of the complaint seems to be "it is too hard to separate the information from the style".  But that is the fun of blogs!  They're personal!  This is why I don't like RSS aggregators (even really cool ones like SharpReader and my new favorite NewsGator): the personal style of the site doesn't come through.  If you want information exchange, use spreadsheets...


Outbound Trackbacks

Friday,  05/02/03  02:44 PM

For the web nerds among you...  (yeah, you!)

I implemented "outbound trackbacks" today.  Essentially a trackback is a way to tell someone: "hey, I linked to your site".  To post a trackback to somebody their site has to support "inbound trackbacks".  This is not yet a widespread feature; I discovered that since the start of the year I've made 1188 links to other sites, of which 28 were trackback-enabled.  Hardly seems worth it, except that I'm sure this will become more popular over time.

I'm still deciding whether to implement "inbound trackbacks".  This would allow me to know when someone has linked to me, but only if they have a trackback-enabled site.  I think for now I'm going to keep looking through my referer logs instead...  Not only does this cover every inbound link (including those from non-trackback-enabled sites), but it tells me when the link was used, which is actually a little more interesting than whether it exists.

Trackbacks are pretty simple; the concept was developed by the folks at Movable Type (a popular blogging tool), and the specification is on their site.  My implementation was to write a script which will run once a day and process all new posts and articles.  For each link in each post, the script retrieves the linked-to page and looks for RDF information in the page which describes the trackback.  (If there isn't any the site isn't trackback enabled, and you're done.)  If there is a trackback URL, you make an HTTP POST to it giving your URL, your site name, and an optional excerpt (there's a good example in the spec).  That's it.

The most interesting part of the script creates a reasonable "excerpt":

grep "$url" $file |
sed "s/<[^>]*>//g;s/&amp;/\&/g;s/&lt;/\</g;s/&gt;/\>/g" |
cut -c1-252 |
sed "s/\\$/%24/g;s/&/%26/g;s/+/%2B/g;s/=/%3D/g;s/\?/%3F/g;s/ /+/g" |
sed "s/+[^+]*\$//;;s/.\$/&.../\"

Yeah, I know, nerdy.  The grep gets the paragraph containing the link.  The first sed converts the HTML into text, throwing away tags.  The cut truncates the excerpt at 252 characters.  The second sed URL-encodes the excerpt, and the final sed appends a "..." to the end.  Voila.

If all sites were trackback-enabled in both directions, it would have the effect of making all links two-way; for any page you would know all the links to it, from all over the web.  I doubt this will ever happen; for one thing the information is not always useful and could be huge (imagine all the inbound links to the Google home page, for example).  But it is a cool thing in the blogosphere, and I expect all the popular blogging tools will support it...


Fehlervorhersagefreude II

Saturday,  05/03/03  05:29 PM

Are you using Fehlervorhersagefreude in everyday conversation?  You're not?  Well, perhaps the proper pronunciation is holding you back.  Lakmal Gunasekara kindly provided this example, however he assures me that this is an "unwort" (a word that isn't a word).  He did mention that there is an official group which elects an Unwort of the Year, so we can always hope...


Saturday,  05/03/03  06:11 PM

Time Magazine: The Truth about SARS.  "It's deadly, infectious and not going away."

We know it is deadly, and we know it is infectious.  What seems controversial is the idea that it is not going away.  History is definitely on the side of the pessimists; no such disease has ever been defeated by quarantine alone.  Until there is a successful treatment regime and some sort of vaccine to keep it from spreading, it is going to spread.

Consider the parallels to AIDS, a viral infection like SARS.  AIDS is not airborne, it requires fluid contact between people for transmission.  SARS is airborne.  AIDS has a slow incubation period.  SARS appears to have a fast incubation period.  If untreated AIDS generally results in death, although there are exceptions.  SARS appears at least as fatal as AIDS, although it is too early to be certain.  Despite medicine's best efforts over the last thirty years, including development of a successful treatment regime, AIDS is still growing and remains a leading cause of death, especially in Africa.  It would appears that AIDS will not really be slowed until a vaccine is developed.  AIDS has resisted development of a vaccine by mutating rapidly; SARS has already demonstrated a similar capability.  Unless there is a breakthrough and a SARS vaccine is developed more quickly than one for AIDS, doesn't it seem like SARS is going to follow the same trajectory as AIDS, only faster?

Steven Den Beste posted a fascinating article about blogrolling.  He notes the dilution that occurs when people have really long blogrolls...  (and interestingly calls it an "inverse network effect".)  Similar to this discussion on Pierre Omidyar's site about BlogShares, which models the "value" of a blog by its inbound links, and then divides this value among its outbound links.

Steven also draws a distinction between 'linkers' (bloggers who's posts are centered around links to other blogs, like Glenn Reynolds) and 'thinkers' (bloggers who write articles with original content themselves, like Steven himself).  I must admit I spent much more time linking than thinking...

Jamie Zaworsky says CSS is BS.  The post is interesting and so is the comment thread which follows it.  I'm not as anti-CSS as he is, but I must ask - what's wrong with tables?  They do seem to work...

Here's an interesting post by Rob Howard; he reports on a product review meeting attended by Bill Gates.  "I thought it was going to be more overview and less detail, but instead what it reminded me of was a feature team meeting."

After 19 seasons, John Stockton is retiring.  I guess he was a lot of people's favorite player; he was one of mine.  He always seemed like an underdog, even though he was probably the most talented point guard ever to play.  A small white guy in a league of big black guys, he used quickness, court sense, and anticipation instead of sheer athleticism to dominate games.  Like Magic Johnson, another of my favorites, he made his teammates better and was always looking for someone to setup with a pass, but if you left him open he'd burn you with a jumper, especially with the game on the line.  I rooted against the Jazz more often than for them - most of the time when I watched a Jazz game they were playing the Lakers - but I respected John and the league will miss him.  And to prove his feel for the game, he's retiring at the right time...

Finally - check out bardcode - Shakespeare in bar code.  Some people obviously have too much time...


Try, or Try Not

Saturday,  05/03/03  08:40 PM

For everything there is to do, the easy way to fail is simply not to try.  In this I humbly disagree with Master Yoda, who famously noted:

Master YodaTry not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.

There is definitely a try, even if it doesn't lead to a do.  And this separates winners from losers more surely than anything else.  Trying does not, in and of itself, lead to success, of course.  Depending on the goal, there are many ways to fail.  But not trying surely leads to failure.

I was thinking about John Stockton, the recently retired Utah Jazz basketball player who typified "trying".  He had a lot of talent, of course, so his trying led to success, but he will always be noted for his effort rather than his talent.  In thinking about John and giving full effort, I wondered "why doesn't everyone always try"?

There is effort involved in trying; an investment of resources, if you will, and so one could argue that not trying when you know you will fail is prudent.  But I don't think that's it.  Not trying is not a calculated decision, it is emotional.  People just don't like to fail.  If you don't try, you can always reassure yourself with the false comfort that you would have succeeded, if only you had tried.  Once you try and fail, that's it.  Actually there is a gradient all the way from not trying to giving 100% effort.  Sometimes people do something in a half-hearted way, and possibly this is their form of "not trying"; they can feel they would have succeeded if they had given full effort, and thereby feel less bad about themselves for having failed.

As I've noted before, I believe happiness comes from liking yourself.  Things which make you feel better about yourself are "fun", and things which make you feel worse about yourself are not.  Trying to do something you are not good at may not be fun, in the sense that you will feel worse about yourself for your lack of skill or success.  This accounts for the wide range of things people do to have "fun"; different people are skilled at different things.  Certainly you don't have to feel worse about yourself for not trying or doing all of these things.  That is the "out"; if you don't try, you won't fail.

But...  That's fine for discretionary recreational activities.  But what about life itself?  What about your family?  Your profession?  Your contribution to the world?  In these things not trying is the surest way to fail.  You may be able to convince yourself that your lack of success is due to lack of effort, not lack of skill, but that is secondary; your lack of success will be a fact either way.

The key seems to be to regard trying itself as a success.  Yoda himself understood this, for he said:

Learn to lose as well as win, a Jedi must.

If you can feel good about yourself for your effort - regardless of the results - then you can always succeed.


Sunday,  05/04/03  11:44 PM

If you're at all interested in Cultural Evolution by Group Selection, please read this terrific post by David Burbridge on GNXP.  He draws an important distinction between culture as an extended phenotype vs. culture as a self-replicating meme, and concludes that the former is far less likely to cause cultural evolution via natural selection than the latter.  The central argument against all group selection is that groups don't replicate, only the individuals within them do (and actually, only the genes within the individuals within the groups do)...

Time - What Will it Take to Win?L.T.Smash notes an interesting "Time Capsule": the April 7 issue of Time Magazine (cover pic at right).  Re-reading the articles in this issue leads to definite fehlervorhersagefreude:  "Now that the first week's fighting has failed to match expectations, experts are asserting that the U.S. was not prepared for the possible difficulties."  L.T. answers the question posed on the cover, What Will It Take To Win:

Two more days.

Charles Murtaugh discusses an important paper published in Science, that mouse embryonic stem cells can be coaxed into making eggs in a petri dish.  Among a large number of potential applications, this allows eggs to be made from males; you could actually clone an animal by mating it with itself.  Mind boggling.

Pogo! announces a new product: Radio Your Way.  Looks like essentially a handheld Tivo for radio.  [ Thanks Nick ]  This looks interesting, but it has two big drawbacks relative to my dream: 1) only four hour capacity (i.e. no hard drive), and 2) doesn't interface cleanly to a home stereo system.  Well, it is only a matter of time before someone gets this right.

Rumors that Sun will be acquired are circulating, fueled by a 92% drop in share price over the past three years.  Dell, IBM, or HP are the logical suitors.  I don't know, seems like Sun might be a bad deal at any price, hard to see where their long term value will come from.

Jon Rentzch posted an interesting article about an aspect of Apple's new iTunes Music Store which has gone under-reported; the way they handle micropayments.  He suggests they "batch" credit card transactions so they amortize the overhead across several purchases.

Jon hits it exactly; I've been buying tracks from the iTunes store using my PayPal account, so I can see exactly what they're sending through…  They authorize each time, but they only post aggregated debits after 48 hours.  Since many people like me buy more than one track at a time, or especially more than one track within 48 hours, this will work for them.  Interestingly, issuers are not going to be happy about this.  Many of them have to pay per-authorization charges, even for transactions which are not captured.

More iTunes Music Store user experience; last night I downloaded Sting's latest: The Very Best of Sting.  This album has eighteen tracks from the Police and Sting's solo career, and cost $9.  That is - YEP - $.50/track.  So for albums there is a volume discount over the store's $1/track price.  I'm listening to Sting right now - Brand New Day...

Anders Jacobsen shows an amusing example of a low-tech virus.

Peter Provost shows a not-so-amusing example of an easy way to crash Internet Explorer.  For a free crash, click here.  Worryingly, an email with the same HTML causes Outlook to crash!

The CSS vs. HTML debate continues; Simon Willison throws his hat in the CSS ring.  I don't think this is black and white, but CSS definitely has its problems; check out Objective, Chris Hollander's great blog, which looks crummy in Mozilla or a narrow window.  Yeah, tables definitely have their advantages...

Amish Tech Support comments on blogroll dilution.  This may be navel gazing, but I find it interesting; everyone wants to be popular, and managing blogrolls is a big part of directing traffic.

Finally, the latest computer room accessory (a kitten).


Monday,  05/05/03  11:33 PM

It's all happening...

I just really like John Howard, Australia's PM.  In this AP story Australia Urges End to Sanctions in Iraq John says: "The most important thing now is for everybody to be realistic ... Provided all countries recognize that the United States and its coalition partners are running Iraq, I think everybody can move forward in a very practical and sensible way."  Yep.

Apple's iTunes Music Store has a great promotion - new music Tuesdays.  Each Tuesday they send everyone who's signed up for the service an email promoting some new bands.  You click the link, listen to the music, and if you like, buy it.  I really think they've hit on a great formula.

This would be cooler if they had some way to know "what you like".  Since they have the record of your buying patterns, they could make suggestions a la NetFlix or Amazon.  Perhaps they've already thought of this.

Another cool enhancement would be the ability for people to share playlists, kind of like the way Live365 lets people "broadcast" their own programs.  Then if you have a friend who's into a lot of the same music you are, you could listen to her playlists and [if you like the music], buy it.  Many, many ways to take this...

Winds of Change has a great post: RIAA Preparing to Attack its Customers.  Just as Apple is showing the right way to do music online, the RIAA continues to show the wrong way.  Actually they are not even wrong.  "This tactic defines extremism from an industry that deserves to die."  Business Week: Big Music, Win Some, Lose a Lot More?

If Apple's store continues to be successful, it is interesting to ponder where it could lead.  If this type of access and promotion sells music, does a band really need a label for promotion and distribution?  { They sure don't need a label to make music anymore;  anyone with a few microphones and a Mac can do that... }

Jeffery Pfeffer in Business 2.0: Don't Believe the Hype About Strategy.  "The best way to build a company for the future is to cut back on meetings and get back to work."  Yep.  This is one of the many reasons why startups out-execute bigger companies.

Memory Stick TV TunerYou know the Sony memory stick?  Well, apparently Sony is working on a TV tuner which fits into a memory stick slot for PDAs.  Wow.  (Click pic at right for larger view.)

Check out this hilarious movie, "Smokenders".  [ via Adam Curry ]

VentureBlog not only has good insight into VC investing, they are thoughtful about blogging, too.  In this post they discuss making their referer logs public.  Hmmm...

More blogroll philosophy: thinkers vs. linkers from Electric Venom.

Speaking of blogrolls, check out SARS Watch, my latest addition.  A good daily picture of what's happening in the SARS world.  So far the news is not good; "tip of the iceberg" seems to summarize what we're seeing in Asia.

If you're interested please read "How SARS Works", from the terrific science site "How Stuff Works".  There is some great stuff on the 'net, isn't there?

Related - an interesting article on Attacking Anthrax, in Technology Review.  "Anthrax stands apart in the rogue's gallery of bioterror diseases: the bacterial spores that cause it are relatively easy to acquire, mass-produce, and disseminate."  [ via InstaPundit ]

Switching gears, the Spurs looked pretty good beating the Lakers last night to take a 1-0 lead in their series.  Seems like the key was when the Lakers got into foul trouble, unusual for them.  Also Rick Fox will be missed more in this series than he was against Minnesota.  After watching the Nets beat the Celtics (the best in the East), I really think the L.A. / San Antonio winner is going to go all the way.

Wrapping up - the Interplanetary Internet (IPN).  I've read some blogs I thought were from Pluto, maybe someday they really will be!  { Note: due to crummy limitations in the speed of light, IPN transmissions will always be less interactive, more like email and less like surfing directly to a blog.  Of course, you could always have cache servers on each planet... }


Citydesk 2.0

Tuesday,  05/06/03  11:45 PM

Yippee, I'm trying theCitydesk 2.0 beta.  (Citydesk is the tool I use for creating all these pages.)  There's a bunch of new stuff as well as bug fixes, performance improvements, etc.  The most visible thing to you, my readers, is that I was able to add "previous" and "next" links on every post and article.  These let you browse though posts chronologically.  For an example, please click here; this takes you to yesterday's post.  You'll notice new links at the top which take you to the previous and next posts.  You can click "home" to return to the main page.

So far so good, but as always with new software stuff could be broken; if you notice anything amiss please let me know!


Tuesday,  05/06/03  11:47 PM

David Burbridge is on a roll; his latest: Altruism and Group Selection.  There is really no such thing as either altruism or group selection, as David shows...  Basically you have selfish genes and they are the units of selection; if this results in apparently altruistic behaviour at the group level, so be it.

Paul Graham has another great article up: Hackers and Painters.  [ thanks Tim Bray ]  An interesting look at the sociology of computer engineering.  I don't agree with all of it - I can't draw the sharp distinction between "architecture" and "engineering" that Paul does - but it is an interesting read.

Will the last person/company to leave Silicon Valley turn out the lights?  Now it is 3Com which is moving; continuing the string of companies which have fallen on hard times after buying the rights to name a stadium.  (Candlestick Park it will always be...)  The key fact: "[3Com CEO Bruce] Claflin has roots in Massachusetts."

Hilary Rosen, the outgoing head of the RIAA, has written a column for Business 2.0: Why the Recording Industry Loves Tech.  This is a reasonable and well-balanced article, but it is at odds with the RIAAs completely unreasonable and unbalanced response to applications of technology such as Internet file sharing.  I think they only love tech when they can control it, and that is impossible.

With eight days to go until the Matrix Reloaded is released (yeah, but who's counting), Salon ponders 'Matrix Nostalgia'.  "We've gone down the rabbit hole, and not in the way many of us expected."

Xbit labs has a cool article about Chess Championships: Humans vs. Computers.  There's some good history and analysis of the progression of computer skills in playing chess, including the recent Gary Kasparov / Deep Junior match, as well as technical detail about how computers play chess well.  Check it out.

Russell Beattie compares the iPod UI to a typical cell phone; guess which he prefers?

Here's some cool art - Gridcosm.  [ via Matt Webb ]  "The way it works is that each level of Gridcosm is made up of nine square images arranged into a 3x3 grid of images.  The middle image is a one-third size version of the previous level."  Watch the video flythough of over 1000 levels! (5MB)

Some information is starting to leak out about Longhorn, Microsoft's next Windows version, currently planned for late 2004 or early 2005 (set your calendars).  Apparently the window rendering will be quite different, see this WinInfo article for a taste...

Here's an interesting review of a recent Gartner study: Linux Desktop Myths.  Some of the myths (with my take in green):

  • Linux will be less expensive.  (false: Linux is less expensive)
  • Linux is free.  (true: Linux is not free)
  • Linux means no forced upgrades.  (sort of false: Linux means fewer forced upgrades)
  • Linux management is easier.  (false: Linux management is way easier)
  • Linux has a lower TCO.  (false: most studies show Linux has a lower TCO)
  • Linux means longer hardware life.  (false: Linux requires far less hardware)
  • Linux skills are transferable.  (false: Linux and Unix are very similar)

It is actually not a very good article, but perhaps the Gartner study is to blame.  This goes back to the same old problem; these studies are written by junior people, and are not very reliable.

Finally - this file has been shamed :)


Wednesday,  05/07/03  08:04 PM

There's a long 15-post post up at Salam Pax' weblog "Where is Raed?"...  You'll remember this is the blogger in Baghdad who was posting up until just before the war to liberate Iraqi started.  Personally this makes me a little skeptical that the blog is "real", but we'll let time tell; in the meantime it makes for very interesting reading.

Salon asks To Breed or not to Breed?  "Studies show that couples who choose not to have children are happier than those who do. So quit leaning on me to spawn."  Sigh.  This is the very core of Unnatural Selection.

My friend and ex-colleague Reid Hoffman launched his new company yesterday: "LinkedIn".  The basic idea is to formalize your personal network, and leverage it to dine business resources.  Have you ever noticed that everyone you hire who was recommended by an employee seems to work out?  Have you thought that your friends' recommendations are much better than using the Yellow Pages?  Well, that's LinkedIn in action.  More on the philosophy behind this when I have time, but in the meantime it is a cool service, check it out...

I just started reading Michael Crichton's latest, Prey.  It is about nanotechnology run amuck.  Just in case you think this is farfetched, check out this review of a recent Nature article.  Meanwhile the U.S. House of Representatives just earmarked $2.3B for nanotechnology research.  This stuff is so cool I refused to be scared off, but caution is called for...

You might know, my little company Aperio makes virtual microscopy devices and software.  Nanotechnology could well be a whole new market for us; somehow you have to "see" what's happening to debug it...

I now declare that nanotechnology is officially "a Thing".  Let it be so recorded.

IMDB isn't a blog so I can't link this item, so here it is intact: [ via Slashdot ]

Letterbox Format Wins Out at Blockbuster
Movie renters, who once overwhelmingly preferred full-frame versions of their films now generally prefer the so-called letterbox version, according to the Blockbuster chain.  "We made a decision to purchase the majority of titles we bring in on DVD in the widescreen format," Blake Lugash, spokesman for the chain, said.  "We try to follow our customer preferences.  As DVD becomes increasingly popular, they become more familiar with the features and with the benefits of letterboxing.  They've learned it's a superior format to full-frame."

Please welcome Silflay Hraka to my blogroll!  I check them out every day, so hey, they should be there, right?  { My opinion, as you know, is that one should only blogroll sites which one recommends strongly and visits daily.  So there. }  P.S. Thanks, BigWig, for putting up an RSS feed.

Speaking of BigWig (chief blogger at Silflay Hraka), he invented the Carnival of the Vanities, the 33rd edition of which is on Common Sense and Wonder.  A very unique and cool approach this week, please check it out!

Dave Winer asks: "So what's worse than a rich guy who creates format protocols that are sticky, has a high flow weblog, and a fellowship at Harvard?"  Uh, someone who brags about it?

Think Macs are cool but a PowerMac is a little beyond your budget?  Why not build your own Mac?  Check out the CoreCrib!

Wrapping up - Acidman has something to offend everyone.  Man, is he funny.


Books and Wine

Wednesday,  05/07/03  08:28 PM

BooksWineTwo of my favorite things are books and wine.  They even go together; what could be finer than curling up with a great book and a nice glass of wine.

Amazingly, there are many similarities between these two apparently unrelated things.

Today I was in Barnes and Noble, searching for a new book to read, and I reflected that looking for books and wine is very similar.  In some sense they are commodities; if you know you want the latest Michael Crichton novel or Silver Oak Cabernet, you can order it online.  In other senses they aren't; each book by Michael Crichton is unique, with its own personality, as is each vintage of Silver Oak.  Until you "taste" you won't really know the book or the vintage.

Books and wines match moods; sometimes you're in the mood for something technical and detailed, other times something light and fluffy.  If you're sitting out by the pool you want a different wine and book than if you're inside on a rainy day, cuddled in front of the fire.  Some books are really complex, and have to be reread several times to catch all the nuance; others are simple entertainment which can be absorbed in one pass.  Same for wine.  Some wines are hard to like at first; they require some effort to understand, but can be incredibly rewarding.  Same for books.

Both books and wine have vast universes; it is impossible for any one person to read every book or taste every wine.  { Although both are worth trying for... }  There are styles of both; some people like horror books, some action novels, some romance, some nonfiction.  Some people like Cabernet, some Pinot Noir, some Zinfandel, some Beaujolais.  Different strokes for different folks, one man's meat is another man's poison, and all that.

Finding new books and wines is a similar process.  The best source of recommendations is your friends; they know what you like (probably like it themselves), and if they come across a great new Chardonnay or read a great new novel, they'll tell you about it.  Secondarily you have professional reviews.  I find both book and wine reviews to be highly suspect; my taste is often at odds with the reviewers, and there are highly subjective judgments involved in reviewing either...  Even so called experts like Daniel Mendolsohn or Robert Parker frequently love things I hate, or vice versa.  The very subjectivity of evaluation makes both books and wines more interesting.  Beyond others' recommendations you have yourself, and browsing.  Which is what I really wanted to write about...

You're in your local book store.  You want to buy a book.  What kind of book?  You have recent releases, old classics.  You have authors you know, authors you've heard of, and authors nobody has heard of.  Are you in the mood to experiment, or do you want something you know you'll like?


You're in your local wine store.  You want to buy a wine.  What kind of wine?  You have current releases, old classics.  You have wineries you know, wineries you've heard of, and wineries nobody has heard of.  Are you in the mood to experiment, or do you want something you know you'll like?

What's the purpose?  Are you looking for something light to read in bed, or something technical and meaty?


What's the purpose?  Are you looking for something light to drink by itself, or something big to stand up to a formal dinner?

What kind of book are you looking for?  Novel or nonfiction?  Adventure?  Mystery?  Romance?


What kind of wine are you looking for?  Red or white?  Chardonnay?  Cabernet?  Zinfandel?

Are you in a little book store where the staff know every book on the shelves?  Maybe they can recommend something?  Or are you in a big warehouse, where you have to rely on previous experience and ratings (NYTimes book review)?


Are you in a little wine store where the staff know every wine on the shelves?  Maybe they can recommend something?  Or are you in a big warehouse, where you have to rely on previous experience and ratings (Wine Spectator)?

What's your mood?  Are you ready to experiment, even if you have to bail and get another book, or do you want to go with something you know you'll like...  How about some brand new author?  Or a tried and true author you always like?


What's your mood?  Are you ready to experiment, even if you have to bail and get another wine, or do you want to go with something you know you'll like...  How about some brand new winery?  Or a tried and true winery you always like?

See what I mean - spooky, huh?  They're pretty much the same for being pretty much completely different.  In all of these similarities, there is one way in which they're really the same, and that's when you are in a store (like I was today) and you're trying to pick one out...

You wander the aisles.  You've decided on a category - recently released domestic novels, say - and you're trying to pick one.  You pick up a book.  Contrary to the popular idiom, you can judge a book by its cover, in fact this is pretty much all you have to go on.


You wander the aisles.  You've decided on a category - current release domestic merlots, say - and you're trying to pick one.  You pick up a bottle.  Contrary to the popular idiom, you can judge a wine by its label, in fact this is pretty much all you have to go on.

What is the book's title?  Have you heard of this author?  What does the jacket say?  Is it from a reputable publisher?  Perhaps the store has helpfully posted an excerpt from a review?


What is the wine's name?  Have you heard of this winery?  What does the label say?  Is it from a reputable appellation?  Perhaps the store has helpfully posted an excerpt from a review?

Finally you make a decision based on "feel".  The cover art, the title, the author, the shape of the book, every sense you have is employed.  So you pick.  You roll the dice, make your purchase, and head home.


Finally you make a decision based on "feel".  The label art, the name, the vineyard, the shape of the bottle, every sense you have is employed.  So you pick.  You roll the dice, make your purchase, and head home.

And now the fun really begins!  You have a new book!  You have a new wine!  Will this be a new all-time favorite, or a disaster to be turned into a story?  Does it start slow, or are you immediately engaged?  How is the finish?  And later - a day, or a week, or a month - what is your lasting impression?

Yep, two of my favorite things are books and wine.  In fact, now that I've gotten this thought out of my mind, I think maybe I'll pour myself a little glass of Long Chardonnay and curl up with my new Michael Crichton novel...



Thursday,  05/08/03  10:50 PM

I got hardly any comments on my Books and Wine post.  I figured everyone would say "aha, yeah, you're right".  Guess not, oh well...

Today's nanotechnology hype.  Last night I saw a GE commercial featuring a supermodel and a geek; the geek was a "Professor of Nanotechnology".  More evidence this has tipped!

Red JellyfishSuper-cool undersea creatures: red jellyfish discovered.  "... not just a new species and genus.  It is so different from other jellies that it had to be assigned to a new subfamily ..."  Pictures may be found here.

I was talking to my Mom about the 2004 elections...  Bush is popular at the moment, but the main reason he'll be reelected is that so far no compelling Democrat has emerged to oppose him.  Cox & Forkum agree.

If you're interested in LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman's new company which formalizes personal networks for business, check out his comment on Joi Ito's blog.  Heck, check out the whole thread...  Don Park also comments.  As does Ross Mayfield.  The core of these interesting comments is the debate over whether LinkedIn should be "open" (anyone can find anyone else) or "closed" (you can only find people through your 'network').  Reid has many strong reasons for preferring closed, most notably the reliance on reputation, which is at the core of your network.

Andrew Grumet does some Deep Thinking about Weblogs.  [ via Dave Winer ]

Google is "turning off blog noise".  This seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Does this make sense to you?

Peking Duck has some great pictures from South China.  His vacation there was cut short by SARS...

Do you get David Coursey's AnchorDesk emails?  I do - maybe just to annoy myself, he is so smarmy.  And I rarely learn anything from them.  But today I did - Microsoft is adding a "TV client" to their Media Center PC product.  This allows people to stream video from their PC to their TV.  I think this is big...  as I've noted before, Tivo has this capability as well.  and Intel does, too.  This sets up a situation where people can download movies and other content from the 'net and view it on their home entertainment system.  Imaging an iTunes Music Store type of service for video...

In other Tivo news, they introduced "Tivo Basic" today.  A free service but without any of the features that make Tivo compelling.  I guess it might be a "camel's nose under the tent".

Just watched game 2 of the Lakers / Spurs series.  The Lakers got torched.  Man.  Perhaps the Spurs really are better, or perhaps the Lakers really miss Rick Fox and Devean George.  Or perhaps the Lakers needed to go down 0-2 to get their psyche up.  We'll see!


A Perfect Day

Friday,  05/09/03  12:25 PM

"The Landing"
The Landing

I'm out riding my bike, and it is a perfect day... 

The sun is shining over the lake, a light breeze is blowing, pretty girls are jogging, and my daughter's birthday party is coming up...

I really like bike riding.  It keeps me from getting too fat, and it is a perfect way for me to trick myself into getting some exercise every day.  I mountain bike on the weekends, and during the week I do a street ride.   I live in Westlake Village, near Los Angeles, California, and there really is a "West Lake"; my daily route takes me down to the lake, around it, and then a little climb back.  About 13.6 miles with about 575 ft. of vertical, which takes me about 45 minutes (my best time is 41:52, but who's measuring :)

Riding is a perfect time for thinking.  Some people get coder's block, riding gives me the opposite.  After a ride I'm so full of ideas I don't have enough time to execute them all.  I want to take notes while I'm riding so I don't forget anything.  It can be very frustrating.  I have all these little notes all over my desktop with code to write.  Oh, yeah, and with blog entries to make...

So today I did a 42:28 - I was in a hurry to get back so I could blog this :)


Saturday,  05/10/03  10:24 PM

To my mom, my wife, my mother-in-law, and to all moms everywhere:

Happy Mother's Day!

Lately I've been thinking a lot about blogging, and writing.  You'll remember science fiction novelist William Gibson noted he's giving up his blog so he can start working on a new book.  Gibson is an accomplished writer, and your mileage may vary.  I know mine does, the more I write, the easier I find writing to be.  Looking back over my brief four-month blogging history, I'm writing more and [dare I say] writing better.  Also I'm doing more thinking (original writing) and less linking (writing about others' original writing).  Actually my advice to anyone who wants to write is - start a blog!

Ed Cone celebrates the one-year anniversary of his blog with some interesting retrospections about blogging and writing (he's a professional journalist).  "If journalism is the first draft of history, then blogging is sometimes the first draft of journalism."

Ben Hammersly has a cool feature on his blog; mousing over links displays the number of incoming links to that entry.  Ben is the author of "Blogging Hacks"; looks like a must read... [ via Boing Boing ]

There's been a lot of discussion about this story from England; a group of six monkeys was given a computer for a month to see what they would type.  This supposedly to test the claim that an infinite number of monkeys given typewriters would create the works of The Bard.  Obviously six monkeys for a month is not "infinite", and it comes as no surprise to any thoughtful person that nothing much came of it.  Amazingly, some people have drawn the conclusion that this experiment somehow 'disproves' the claim, which is ridiculous.  Monkeys typing are essentially random character generators; if the target document contains X characters chosen from a character set of Y values, there are Y^X possible configurations, and if it takes Z time to type X characters then it will take on average Z*Y^X/2 time before the target is generated.  Fill in variables for a Shakespeare play and monkeys typing, and you get a   l o n g   time.  This reminds me of the way people extrapolate from genetic experiments done over a few generations to 'prove' evolution doesn't work; they just don't get the difference between "a few" and "millions".

Although the six monkeys did not create Shakespeare, they have started a blog...

Leaving blogging, here is a terrific story by Michael Barone: A tale of two Americas.  "One of the peculiar features of our country is that we produce incompetent 18-year-olds and remarkably competent 30-year-olds".  Fascinating and thought-provoking - please read it.

Bang & Olufsen, one of my favorite companies, has created some new high-end speakers which are really cool.  Not only are they beautiful, but they have some really amazing technology.  I love companies that combine great technology with beautiful design - Lexus, Apple, Sony...

Speaking of great technology and beautiful design - check out the Origami Museum.  Many awesome models complete with flash animations which show you step-by-step how to make them.  [ via Usable Design Media ]

Wrapping up - my daughter Alex (9) asks "why do animals live as long as they do?"  Fascinating question.  The subject of another post...


Google and Blogs

Sunday,  05/11/03  11:26 AM

There's been considerable discussion in the blogosphere about Google "dropping blogs" from search results.  Dave Winer linked Andrew Orlowski's article about Eric Schmidt's comments; more recently Dave links Evan Williams' reply that Orlowski is full of crap.  So what's the truth?  Unlike Evan, I have no inside knowledge (Evan is the founder of Pyra, makers of Blogger, which was recently purchased by Google), but here's some educated guesswork...

First, Google is all about delivering accurate search results.  If they thought dropping blogs would help, that's why they would do it.  (Not because they dislike blogs or have some philosophical axe to grind.)  So we need to think about whether blogs improve search results or not.  Second, Google has a history of separating search domains in their GUI (images, groups, directory, news).  Each of these domains have different characteristics, and when a user searches they generally know which domain they want to search within.  It is reasonable to assume that rather than dropping blogs altogether, Google would establish a new domain for them.  So we need to think about why they would do this and how it might work.  Finally, Google works great for most sites, but the way they index blogs could be improved.  So we can think about how blogs could best be indexed.

Dave asked "how will it [Google] tell the difference [between blogs and everything else]"?  I'm not sure how they could tell, there are gray lines between news sites, personal home pages, company sites, e-commerce stores, blogs, etc., but there are technical ways to distinguish (blogs ping, they have RSS feeds, etc.).  More on this below, but for now let's think about the differences a search engine would care about:

  1. Blogs' content changes frequently.
  2. Blogs are link-rich and content-poor.
  3. Blogs contain personal opinion

If you think about it these things all make blogs less useful to search engines.  Let's consider them in turn:

Blogs' content changes frequently.  Blogs are chronological diaries; many bloggers post at least once a day and some post multiple times a day.  Each post usually has a "permalink" (a URL which always links to the post), but the blog itself has a constant URL, and the content of that URL is always changing.  Consider my little blog; I post about once per day, and Google's spider visits me about once per day.  It takes Google some time before their spider's data are indexed and absorbed, so most of the time what Google "thinks" is on my blog's home page is only accurate for a few hours.  This is shown vividly by looking at my referer logs; Google often directs people to my home page based on content which is no longer there!

Blogs are link-rich and content-poor.  Many posts on a blog simply link to other posts on other blogs, perhaps adding some commentary and/or associating multiple posts with similar content together.  Not all blogs are that way - this is the "thinkers" vs. "linkers" distinction I've mentioned before - but overall if Google directs a searcher to a blog, they're more likely to find links than the information itself.  There is value in having the links aggregated by the blogger, but that's what Google does anyway.  So most blog posts are not very good targets for a search, even if many other bloggers have linked to them.

Blogs contain personal opinion.  By their very nature, blogs are one or a small number of people's thoughts about their world.  Blogs which blandly report news are uncommon; most blogs are full of philosophy, politics, sociology, and general spin.  This is what makes them interesting and fun to read, but it isn't clear this is helpful for someone searching for information.  If you are searching for "George Bush landing on the U.S.S.Lincoln", that's what you want to find, not 1,000 bloggers' personal opinions about George Bush's landing.

So I can see why Google might want to exclude blogs from search results.  By the same token, blogs have information that can't be found anywhere else; they are an incredible source of information.  The information takes several forms:

  • Firsthand accounts of news events.  Frequently bloggers "are there", and contribute detail and insight (and photos) unavailable anywhere else.
  • Links connecting information together in virtual threads.  The interconnections between blog posts are amazingly informative.  Consider the brief thread I described above: Dave Winer -> Evan Williams -> Andrew Orlowski -> Eric Schmidt.  Each added information to the overall picture, but I never would have found these connections by simply searching Google.
  • Personal opinions.  I noted above that if you are searching for information about George Bush's landing blogs would not be helpful.  { Except for a firsthand account, of course, what if a Navy seaman blogged about the event! }  But if you wanted to know what people thought about the landing, checking blogs is absolutely the thing to do (as opposed to, say, taking CNN's or Fox's word for it).
  • Discussions.  In addition to one person's opinion, you have the give-and-take between many people.  Frequently blogs have comment threads which host the discussion.  Or bloggers may link back and forth on their own blogs, perhaps connected by trackbacks.  The discussion is often more illuminating than the original information.

So I can see where Google would definitely want to continue presenting blogs' information, but segregated into a different search domain.  They would do this for another reason, too - to improve the presentation of results.  Google News results are different from Google Web results, and they are presented differently too, as a reflection of the underlying differences in the content.

There is no doubt Google's approach to indexing web sites made a qualitative improvement in web searching.  But there are ways blogs can be indexed which would be a big step forward:

  • Use for currency.  Most blogs "ping" whenever their content changes.  Google could use this to determine when blogs' content have changed and schedule their spiders accordingly.  By the same token any site which pings should be considered a blog.  If Google did this, everyone with a blog would want to ping.

That's the answer to Dave's question "how will it tell the difference?" - it will ask the bloggers!

  • Use RSS feeds for content.  Most blogs have RSS feeds which abstract their content.  Google can use blogs' RSS feeds to determine what posts are at which URLs without laboriously spidering each blog every time it is updated.  If Google did this everyone with a blog would want to have an RSS feed.
  • Model the interconnections between posts.  The multithreaded world of links between blogs contains a mine of information - as shown by Technorati, Dave Sifrey's terrific search engine.  If Google could provide a way to find and display these threads, it would be really cool.  Currently we have comments, trackbacks, links between sites, etc. - all valuable and all different - and it is tough to get the big picture without a lot of clicking around.
  • Aggregate opinions.  The magic of Google is that they use links to index pages, instead of the contents themselves.  ("You have what people say you have.")  This technique applied to blog posts could be very valuable, use links to categorize an expressed opinion, instead of the opinion itself.  ("You think what people say you think.")

No doubt there are other ways, too.  By segregating blogs and treating them differently, Google could improve the blog searching experience.  Which in turn would make the information on blogs more valuable.

Wrapping up, here are my conclusions:

  • Google might want to exclude blogs from search results.
  • Google would definitely want to continue presenting blogs' information, segregated into a different search domain.
  • Google could improve the blog searching experience by leveraging attributes of the blogs themselves, such as, RSS feeds, comments, and trackbacks, and by applying their technique of using links to categorize content.

Those are my thoughts, I'm sure you'll have others.  I'll search for them :)

P.S. Click here for a Technorati search for blogs which link to Orlowksi's article.  There are 195 listed, each of which has other inbound links, comment threads, trackbacks, etc.  Amazing!



Sunday,  05/11/03  11:06 PM

It's all happening... (seems like a good name for a blog :)

I've ignored the whole Jayson Blair / NYTimes thing; but of course I have a strong opinion.  So does Glenn Reynolds!  Anyone who thinks this isn't affirmative action-related is not paying attention.  The worst part of this whole affair is the way it taints the work of any other minority reporter; people may question their veracity based solely on race.  (In the same way that an Ivy-league degree means less if you're a minority.)  So we see that affirmative action actually hurts minorities in their struggle for credibility.  I hope the folks at the University of Michigan who are fighting to preserve their admission policies think about this.

Bush and Blair have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  Makes as much sense as anyone else...  This prize just doesn't have the luster or credibility of, say, the prize for Chemistry.  I mean, Yasser Arafat has won it.

There's a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about "social software".  The Guardian wonders "is it the next big thing or just hype".  I think - just hype.  Tools for communication are what people really need.  Don Park has misgivings about it...  Don't worry, Don.  It is what it is.  If there's a "there there", it will emerge from human-to-human communication, not because it is forced.

I think about "social software" as I think about "the semantic web".  I don't really get it, because there isn't really anything to get.  Dave Winer agrees.  And Scoble goes further and claims "the whole metadata movement is over-hyped".  I agree completely.  Raise your hand if  you enter keywords for your Word documents so you can categorize them later.

People will do the minimum *now* if there isn't a payoff.  This is why the best GUIs are as simple as possible.  Consider Google - one input field.  We discovered this big-time at PayPal, make the sign-up process as simple as possible, and more people will sign-up.  (Asking even one more question measurably reduced the completion rate.)

Metadata is best thought of as an emergent property, not an explicit one.  Tools which manage emergent metadata are very useful - Google is a perfect example.  Tools which require explicit entry of metadata are not...  RSS feeds work precisely because nobody has to do much to create them ("Real Simple Syndication").  If I had to go and tag every post in my blog with metadata, I would never do it.

Wired looks for A Tivo Player for the Radio.  Me, too!  Bottom line - the killer product is not out yet.  When it is, you'll know it.

Another new online music service: Magnatune.  [ via Cory Doctorow ]  "We are an Internet record label which sells and licenses music by encouraging MP3 file trading and Internet Radio."  Interesting, but of course only "unknown" artists are represented...

I finished Michael Crichton's Prey.  Not that good.  Yeah, the nanotechnology ideas were there, and the genetic programming algorithms, and of course as usual he creates interesting characters and a sense of tension.  But unlike some of his other novels it all seemed too farfetched, the science was far away from what's actually possible.

To see what is actually possible, check out the Avida project at Caltech.  This software is designed to model systems which feature self-reproduction, genetic algorithms, mutation, etc.  Really cool.

Also related - here's a great overview of grid computing from IBM.

Between the advances of nanotechnology, genetic algorithms, and grid computing something like Crichton envisions will exist, but dust clouds of nanoparticles spontaneously emulating people?  No.

With the Matrix Reloaded on tap (three more days!) consider The top 10 things I hate about Star Trek.  I'm going to reverse the polarity of this website right *now*; watch out!


Monday,  05/12/03  10:30 PM

David Burbridge continues his series with Cultural Evolution.  Today he examines memetic evolution in and of itself, not as a by-product of human evolution.  This is the way cultural phenomena like religion are best understood - as self-replicating memes which compete with other memes for reproductive survival.  Excellent stuff!

Mark Cary considers Technorati as a Reputation System.  This is highly relevant to yesterday's Google and Blogs thoughts; as well as the discussions about the relevance of metadata.  Emergent data like analysis of inbound links are the best way to categorize information, as Google understands.  Really good - read it!

Dave Sifry, who created Technorati as a "hobby", has announced an API.  This means anyone can create facilities based on their link database...  hmmm....  I'm an anyone.  Stay tuned!

{ By the way, if your eyes glaze over when you read stuff like this, Tim Bray wrote an excellent introduction to web APIs... }

Deep SpaceWant to see something cool?  Here is the "deepest" deep-space photo ever taken.  (click for larger image.)  The faintest stars visible in this picture are 6 billion times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye. [ via Boing Boing ]

Tonight I sent out over 60 invitations to join LinkedIn.  You don't get anything out of this kind of network unless you put something in.  If you were invited, please join and check it out.  If you weren't and you want to be, send me email :)

Here is a great discussion about LinkedIn on Joi Ito's blog.  Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn's founder) is among the participants in the discussion.

If you don't think the U.S. needs tort reform, check this out: Lawsuit Seeks to Ban Sale of Oreos to Children.  I am not making this up.  This is pathetic.  I honestly believe civil law is the biggest weakness in the U.S. politico-economic system.  { And just try fighting a patent suit sometime - even if you're dead right, you could be dead before you can prove you're right. }


Emergent Properties

Tuesday,  05/13/03  12:56 PM

Let's talk about Emergent properties of information, vs. explicit properties, shall we?

This came up recently when we were talking about metadata, and how it is terrifically useful as an emergent property developed by a metadata generator (Google or Technorati), and terrifically inconvenient as an explicit property developed by the content generator (RDF coded by humans).

Well, here's another example of the same thing in another domain: Artificial Intelligence.  Marvin Minsky says "AI has been brain-dead since the 1970s".  This is a terrific Freudian slip, as well as metadata confusion.  { Marvin is one of the true pioneers of AI, by the way, and one of my heroes. }  Read on...

First, perhaps a brief digression is in order.  An emergent property of something is an attribute which "emerges" from the whole, a higher-level thing which summarizes lower-level things.  For example, this post is philosophical.  No one letter or word or sentence or even paragraph contains the attribute "philosophical", that property emerges from the whole.  If I enclosed the whole post with tags like this <philosophy>...</philosophy> that would be an explicit property; something I explicitly added (and the "<philosophy>" tags would be metadata). 

Going back to AI, Marvin says AI can't deal with concepts like "water is wet".  In this case, wet is an emergent property of water; no one water molecule has this property, but a bunch of molecules in liquid form together do.  And in the physical world there is no way to add metadata - you can't "tag" liquid with a property like "wet".  But here's where I respectfully part ways from Marvin.  Emergent properties like "wet" can be determined, usually by analogy - and AI has made huge strides in this sort of processing.  It is just like Google can determine that a website about water is "wet" by examining all the links to the site ("this site is wet"), even if the site itself does not mention wetness (or "know" that it is wet in any way).

Marvin goes on to say expert systems based on rules and heuristics have 'reached a dead-end'.  This is exactly right!  But this doesn't mean AI has stopped - it has redirected...  Using rules and heuristics is akin to using explicit metadata, an approach which is inherently limited.  Using inference engines to determine emergent properties is more powerful and actually easier.  In a way, this is a "brain dead" approach, because it doesn't require that a lot of effort be invested in creating metadata the way rules/heuristic approaches do.  Instead, the effort is invested in analysis of the information to synthesize the meta-information.  So Marvin is dead right - AI is "brain dead" - but not in the way he meant.  It certainly doesn't mean progress has stopped, quite the contrary.  Google is a shining example of AI in action.

And speaking of Google, consider The Semantic Web (note capital letters).  Some people think labeling everything on every web page with metadata will make searching and managing the information on the web easier.  Wrong.  This is just like putting <philosophy> tags around this article.  If this is philosophy, then that's because it is an emergent property of what I wrote, not because I explicitly labeled it as such.  What if I labeled it <sports> or <art>?  That wouldn't make it either one (well, you might consider it art, but that would be a matter of opinion, not a clearly labeled fact.  And that's the point!)  Instead of explicitly attaching metadata to everything, the web has evolved superior ways of implicitly computing emergent properties, exemplified by search engines like Google and Technorati.  Not only is this much easier - everything doesn't have to be categorized up front - but it works much better, because the emergent properties do not have to be predetermined in advance.

This same emergent vs. explicit distinction comes up in image processing, which my little company Aperio does all day long.  When you're trying to recognize patterns in images, you can do it two ways.  One way is to make a list of possible "features" images can have, things like shapes, colors, textures, relationships to one another, etc.  Then you catalog all the features of a particular image explicitly by way of characterizing that image.  The other way is to compute emergent properties of the image dynamically, and use them to characterize the image.  This is conceptually simpler and actually easier, because an exhaustive list of potentially useful features does not have to be compiled up front.  It does require clever algorithms for computing the emergent properties, which is where Aperio has some cool ideas...

Whenever you read about people who want to add metadata to information to make properties explicit, be skeptical!  There are generally better ways to accomplish the same thing by computing emergent properties from the information itself.



Tuesday,  05/13/03  10:32 PM

Precelebration dept: Beijing: SARS under control.  If only.  Somehow it would be much more reassuring if they were worried and taking the potential for new cases seriously.  The old communist "deny any bad news" meme is still active in China.30 Spaces for the 21st Century

Wired is running a great series: 30 spaces for the 21st century.  So far they've published Atlas Space, Voice Space, Office Space, Home Space, Bush Space, and Protest Space, with more to come.  Check it out!

Are you hungry?  How about some alphabet soup?  Digest XBL vs. XSLT, a post on Surfin' Safari that speaks eloquently to the complexity of these new ways to build web pages.  HTML I could explain to my 9-year old daughter.  This I can't even explain to myself.  Does that make it bad?  Yes.

Scott Hanselman ponders The Myth of .NET Purity.  Ironically I find this sort of article reassuring; it is a lot easier for me to deal with .NET as yet another API with potentially leaky abstractions than as a perfect solution to all the world's problems. [ via Scoble, who isn't pulling any punches now that he's in Redmond... ]

The color of money dept: $20 bill gets facelift.  The U.S. will *still* have the ugliest currency in the world, but it's a start.

Speaking of money, here's some interesting news in payment technology: Nokia turns phones into credit cards.  I've been expecting this, why should every store have a phone-based credit card authorization terminal when every credit card user has a cell phone?  I believe this could be the future.

And speaking of payment technology, PayPal's growth continues; Scott Loftesness reports they now have 28M members, and are growing at 45,000 new members EVERY DAY.  Wow.

{ When I think of numbers of people, I use a visual: 45,000 people is a sellout at Dodger Stadium.  That is a lot of people! }

And speaking of online payment processors, IPayment had the year's first successful IPO, up 31% on the first day despite last minute bogusness courtesy of their underwriter Bear Stearns.

Tim Oren has a fascinating post: No Exit: When Venture Capital Isn't Right.  This is a great survey of how VC funds work, and what types of investments fit their "model".  [ via Andrew Anker ]  My two takeaways:

  1. The company must have either a good IPO story in a field which has an IPO track record, or a good acquisition story in a field which has big buyers.
  2. The company must be able to consume a significant amount of capital and deliver a potential 10X return on this capital within about five years.

E-PaperWhen ads collide with content dept: Check out this screen shot (click thumbnail).  An interesting article about e-paper, juxtaposed with an ad for the tablet PC, another form of "e-paper"...

CalPundit has Fun with Statistics; the top ten mistakes that infest day-to-day reporting of statistical information.  #3 is my favorite because it is subtle: correlation vs. causality.

Did you catch the Lakers / Spurs game last night?  Not really a good game, but a great finish.  The Lakers dug their way out of a deep 25-point hole and nearly pulled it out.  I sure expected Robert Horry to bury that trey at the buzzer.  Now the Lakers have two must-win games in a row.  They're being tested for sure!


Wednesday,  05/14/03  11:08 PM

The Matrix ReloadedYep, Today The Matrix Reloads.  I can't wait! 

{ Here's the Salon review... no spoilers. }

Somehow it seems fitting that the Matrix Reloaded general release coincides with a major lunar eclipse.  There's a lot to see tonight...

Mark Kottke asks an interesting question:Is Apple stupid or courageous?  He suspects Apple will get into trouble with big music because the iTunes Music Store's sharing facilities can be subverted for a form of online file sharing (see ShareiTunes).  I don't know if they're stupid - seems like this possibility would have been discussed when Apple did their deals - so that makes them courageous.  I've got to believe big music is encouraged by the early success of the Apple service.

SARSwatch dept: China Threatens to Execute SARS Spreaders.  Yeah, that will help.  These guys are desperate - there is no way this thing is under control yet.

Doc Searles and Dave Winer consider whether Google will be crushed by Microsoft, a la Netscape (following a Forbes cover: All Eyes on Google).  I don't think so.  Google has a network effect which will be hard to break, much more so than Netscape.  Also, a fact people often overlook, Netscape's demise was hastened by their own incompetence, they never did have a business model which worked.  But Google does...

An interesting note in Doc's post: "Gary Flake, the chief scientist at Overture, is highly dismissive of Google".  Seems weird to me.  Flake should be highly impressed by Google even as he works hard to leapfrog what they've done.  Respect your competition, especially when they're way ahead of you!

Fox-trot: Google is not only cool, it defines cool :)

The 34th Carnival of the Vanities is up, complete with animated images - check it out!  My favorite is D.C.Thornton's "Flunking Victimology 101" - recommended reading!

Dave Winer makes a great point: "Trackback isn't what I want. I want it in the other direction".  He's exactly right.  But he's wrong about the solution - we don't need new facilities to explicitly create this metadata.  It should be an emergent property created from analysis of server logs.

Tobacco Road Fogey lists The Ten Commandments of Blogging.  "And, as is usually the case with Ten Commandment lists, there is an Eleventh Commandment".

Po Bronson in Wired: Life in the Bust Belt.  Essentially this Silicon Valley pundit is pondering SV 3.0 (1.0 was the PC boom, 2.0 was the Internet).  He says 3.0 will bring things back to normal, but not back to 1999.  I don't know about that - you've got biotech, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and who knows what else beyond the visible horizon ...  Not a bad article, but it misses badly on this one "The economic growth of the next decade won't come disproportionately from those who are motivated by equity".  You just know that is dead wrong.  Personal self-interest underlies all economic growth, and Silicon Valley is exhibit A.Media Concentration

Cory Doctorow posted this wonderful chart on media concentration.  Edward Tufte would love it.  Fortunately we have blogs to resist the trend - they aren't included in the "indie" numbers, but what do you think the chart would look like if they were?  Maybe the pac-man would be pointing the other way :)


Blog by Mail?

Thursday,  05/15/03  12:17 PM

I haven't done a survey for a while, but my inquiring mind wants to know.  Would you have a blog if you could post to it simply by sending email?

You bet, the complexity is what keeps me from blogging.

No way, I wouldn't have a blog no matter how easy it is.

I already blog!

total votes = 27

  (ended 05/31/03)


Thursday,  05/15/03  11:22 PM

Sigh.  Well, the Lakers are out, and the lunar eclipse was a fizzle, at least in my part of Southern California.  Some nights are like that...

I haven't seen The Matrix Reloaded yet either.  Scoble loved it.  And he has great advice: "The wife will hate it ... gotta lower her expectations so she enjoys it."

The Star Wars KidYou guys have probably seen "the Star Wars kid" already; he's been all over the Internet.  Well, he's been identified, and people are actually trying to raise money to buy him an iPod.  How cool is that!  [Refresh page to replay animation.]

Jim Lacey asks: Where are the WMDs?  His intriguing theory: "It is likely that if Saddam no longer had a WMD program he did not know it."

Bill Thompson reports from the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference: Blog eats Blog.  He enters the blogosphere and doesn't like what he sees.  Central point - too much linking, not enough thinking.  Fair enough, but there is enough thinking to keep me reading...

Bored and want something new to do?  How about Rock Paper Scissors Spock Lizard.  I am not making this up.


Friday,  05/16/03  09:10 PM

A compendium of software notes...

Joel Spolsky has posted a new rant about how he's given up on software prototypes.  I rarely disagree with Joel - he generally hits the nail squarely on the head - but he's dead wrong about this.  His central point is that creating prototypes are too much work.  His examples are from "years ago", and perhaps in the past creating prototypes was too much work, but with today's tools a prototype can be whipped out in no time.  In fact, for web interfaces or GUIs, the prototype often can be grown into the real product without starting over.

Instead of using computer software, Joel suggests creating prototypes on paper.  This is really living in the past.  By making this suggestion, he's saying is that prototypes are valuable, but that it just takes too much time to create them with computer tools.  So, check out VB, Joel, or C#.  You might be amazed how easy creating this stuff can be these days...

I don't mean to disparage paper prototypes, by the way, they can be very valuable.  So are whiteboard prototypes.  So is any visual tool to communicate an idea.  I'm just saying that the effort to create computer prototypes isn't that great compared to paper anymore.

This article references an older article Joel wrote about "the iceberg problem".  This is a much deeper point and an example of his insight.  The iceberg problem is that the visual part of a program is only the tip of an iceberg, and actually making it do whatever it is supposed to do is much harder and takes much longer.  Non-programmers don't get this.  So you put together a prototype (!), demo it to customers and/or managers, and they say "great, let's do it".  The expectation is that the prototype is the program, and the project is 90% done.  The reality is that the actual program hasn't been started yet, and the project is 10% done.

Tara Calishain asks Why Try to Out-Google Google?  This is a detailed, interesting article, and it mixes great points with crummy ones.  The best point is the biggest - you'll never knock off the market leader by following them.  In order to compete with Google, or Microsoft, or Oracle, or Intuit, you cannot improve incrementally on Google's search engine, or Microsoft Word, or Oracle's database, or Intuit's Quicken.  You have to come up with something dramatic, something different, something to make the market change lanes.

The weaker points are smaller - Tara claims Google didn't win the search engine market with great technology.  This is exactly wrong, because Google won precisely because of their better technology.  I remember in 1999 that Yahoo and Excite and Alta Vista were all competing to become portals, and Google just tried to build a better search engine.  Pretty soon people started to use Google for searching because it gave better results - qualitatively better than their competition.  And before you knew it, Yahoo and Excite and Alta Vista were sucking Google's exhaust.

People love to give examples of products which were "inferior" but still won.  The VHS / Betamax war is often cited, as is MS Internet Explorer vs. Netscape.  I'm not saying inferior products don't sometimes win, but neither of these examples illustrates this.  VHS was not superior to Betamax in the area that customers cared about most - recording time.  VHS could record up to six hours, while Betamax could only do two.  Netscape 3 (8/96) was way superior to IE 3 (8/96), and at that time Netscape had huge market share.  But Netscape 4 (6/97) was only an incremental improvement on Netscape 3, and when IE 4 came out (8/97) it had caught up.  In addition to being backward compatible with Netscape, it was measurably faster and supported CSS, the DOM, and DHTML better than Netscape.  { I'm not saying Microsoft didn't engage in unethical or illegal activities, nor that IE won because of superior technology.  But the myth that IE won despite being technically inferior is indeed a myth. }

Another strong point in the article is that Google has a sense of the Internet's culture.  This is true, and important.  When Google playfully changes their logo on holidays, that matters.  They were always cool in addition to being useful.  I think this helped PayPal, too, another Internet success story.  And eBay.  And Amazon...  Microsoft and Oracle do not have this, they are not cool.

Also related - Tim Bray discusses The Natural Language Fallacy.  I'm conflicted about this; on the one hand if computers understood "natural language" it would make them friendlier to non-technical folk, but on the other hand it is less efficient.  Natural languages are naturally ambiguous, and the ambiguity will necessarily degrade the quality of the search results.

View item as web page
click for screen shot

SharpReader - view as web page

View item as a post
click for screen shot

SharpReader - view as a post

I have settled on SharpReader as my favorite RSS aggregator.  I've tried NewsGator and Syndirella, and didn't like either as well.  The main thing I like about SharpReader is that posts easily can be viewed as web pages.  This addresses my main objection to aggregators, that the "style" of each blog is lost and all sites look the same.  The convenience of seeing quickly which sites have changed can't be beat, and neither can the productivity of rapidly clicking through uninteresting posts.  If you haven't tried an RSS aggregator, you should try SharpReader.  Really really.

Matador - click
for screen shot

Matador - really works

And speaking of tools I really like, I love Matador.  This spam filter works really well.  It integrates beautifully into Outlook and unobtrusively puts all spam in a separate folder.  Rarely does any spam make it into my Inbox, and even more rarely does a non-spam get filtered.  I've come to trust it to the point where I just delete the spam folder periodically without even looking at it.

Wrapping up, a note about my blog by mail survey; among the respondents so far, the majority say they would blog if it was as easy as sending email.  So they say...  maybe I'll call their bluff.


Saturday,  05/17/03  11:15 PM

Razib notes a Businessweek article: The New Gender Gap.  "In every state, every income bracket, every racial and ethnic group, and most industrialized Western nations, women reign, earning an average 57% of all BAs and 58% of all master's degrees in the U.S. alone.  There are 133 girls getting BAs for every 100 guys."  Fascinating.  Does this indicate a difference in intelligence between men and women?  I don't think so; although most studies have shown the mean for women is slightly higher than that for men, the bell curve for men is wider, with more people at each extreme.  It probably indicates a difference in focus and discipline which was always there, and which has been revealed by the progress women have made in gaining access to education.  Of course the fact that more intelligent women are getting more education just exacerbates Unnatural Selection, since they'll tend to delay raising children.

David Burbridge does it again: Is Culture Useful.  In which he asks whether culture evolved as a by product of human social evolution (to help humans) or independently (to help itself) - well he didn't exactly ask that, but that's my interpretation.  Interestingly, I think the answer is "both".  Which has implications for Unnatural Selection, seeing as how it is a cultural phenomenon...

If I didn't enjoy these articles so much, David would piss me off, he's doing exactly what I should be doing, posting a series of essays which together make a coherent whole.  Nice work.

Walt Disney is experimenting with self-destructing DVDs.  A chemical reaction causes the surface of these discs to become opaque after 48 hours, rendering them unwatchable (and un-copyable).  Of course during the first 48 hours they are both watchable and copyable, so I'm not sure what this buys them.  Another bogus use of technology.

The SegwayHey, now you can rent a Segway!  $20 for 30 minutes.  Too bad it is only in Spokane, WA.

NYTimes: Dating a Blogger.  [ via Dave Winer ]  "The proliferation of bloggers has led to a new social anxiety: the fear of getting blogged."  Are you afraid of me?  :)

Then there is marrying a blogger; Mark Pilgrim: "saw The Matrix Reloaded last night, went running this morning, getting married in two hours.  I can recommend all of these things."

Check out this funny lotto commercial.  [ via Adam Curry ]

Wrapping up: A Mac made entirely of Lego.  I am not making this up.


Carfree Cities

Sunday,  05/18/03  09:25 AM

CarFree city - detail of a lobe
CarCity has a clover layout (top) with "nodes" on each lobe (right)
CarFree city - the clover layout

Had enough of cars?  Perhaps you would like to live in a city without them?  Consider Carfree Cities, a wonderfully detailed site which designs a city for 1,000,000 people completely without cars, using Venice as an example.  In addition to not having roads for vehicle traffic, the city also exemplifies other features which make cities pleasant: curved streets, large squares, arcades, framing gates, waterways and bridges, variation in elevation, monuments, etc.  There is also consideration of objections, such as congestion (lack of roads increases density) and noise ("the invention of electronic music has taxed the ability of people to live in close proximity to each other"), and practical considerations like commercial shipping.  [via slashdot ]  Really, really cool - and here I've been spending time worrying about making traffic more efficient :)


Anything Points

Sunday,  05/18/03  10:15 AM

CNet reports eBay has a new program which allows consumers to trade frequent flyer miles and other loyalty credit for dollars stored in a PayPal account.  The Anything Points program looks really cool, right?  Especially since people have stopped flying as much, what with the economy and the Iraqi war and SARS...

I was really excited when I first read about it, but a closer look reveals it isn't a great deal.  The exchange rate for frequent flyer miles is 1.38 miles / point, and points are worth $.01, so this is $.0072 / mile.  (10,000 miles are worth $72.)  Frequent flyer miles are generally considered to have a value between $.02 and $.03 when used for flying, so this is a big discount.  Furthermore, exchanging points requires that you join a program at which has an annual fee of $20.  I currently have about 60,000 miles at American Airlines; if I exchange them and pay the annual fee, I net $410.  But if I fly to the East Coast and use these miles to upgrade from coach to business, they'll be worth $1,200.  Not a good deal at all!

Note: I really, really hate it when people have a service and bury the fee.  I had to get all the way through two different sign-ups (one for eBay, one for before the $20 fee was revealed, and even then it was obviously de-emphasized.  This makes no sense to me, and is actually very un-eBay-like.  People are going to find out, and when they do they're going to be upset.  Why not just say it: this service costs $20/year?  It is what it is.


iTrip Report

Sunday,  05/18/03  11:31 AM

The iTripA while back you might recall I was excited about the iTrip, an FM transmitter for the iPod.  Well, I just got mine.  The bottom line: it is really cool, and it works well for what it is - but don't buy one.

The iTrip is a really nice product - attractive, simple, and works exactly as advertised.  The packaging is cool - very Apple-like, gray and white box, fancy form-fitting plastic, etc. - and the documentation is simple and well-written.  It has really good usability, like the fact you don't have to turn it on or off, you just plug it in.  The deep blue "transmitting" LED is cool, too.  (Not shown in the picture - must have been added later...)

The problem is that the iTrip is exactly what it says - an FM transmitter.  I don't know how often you compare sound quality between FM radio and CDs (or MP3s), but there is a big difference.  I did comparison testing between FM transmission and a wired connection to my stereo, and it just isn't close.  The extra hassle of plugging in a cable is well worth it for the additional sound quality.

The real reason I wanted an iTrip - other than the "cool gadget factor" - was to use it in my car.  I have an 11-year old car with a killer stereo (Nakamichi), and it doesn't have any way to plug in an MP3 player.  So I use one of those cassette adapters - a device which plugs into the cassette deck and connects external players by pretending to be a cassette.  The adapter works surprisingly well, but the cassette interface is analog so there is degradation compared to, say, a CD.  Plus you have the wire floating around.  So I was hoping with the iTrip I could do away with the adapter.  Unfortunately the sound quality of the FM transmission is way worse than the cassette adapter.  The lack of clear highs and lows was particularly apparent.  The situation in a car is worse than a building, because the FM antenna is outside (in my case, next to the rear trunk).  I actually had to hold my iPod in the air to get the best sound - not good.  Also, the iTrip depends on choosing a radio frequency which is empty, with no station broadcasting.  In a building you can experiment and find one.  In a car as you drive around you pick up different stations, and they interfere.  In North Los Angeles there are basically no frequencies which are completely unused.

So here's the bottom line:  Once you get over being impressed that it works, you'll discover that it doesn't work well enough to be useful.

[ Update: Griffin Technology, the company behind the iTrip, took mine back with no questions asked.  So if you think you might like an iTrip - check it out, you can always return it. ]


Sunday,  05/18/03  11:08 PM

The Aerocar
The Aerocar

Following up on Carfree cities, here's an interesting article about flying cars (another approach to improve transportation).  There are a number of practical reasons why flying cars haven't "happened", but who cares about that; I want one!

L.T.Smash comments on the recent terror attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca: "These attacks show that the terrorists are on the ropes.  They're getting stupid and desperate."  Interesting point of view...  L.T. is not only authoritative because he's a reserve officer stationed in Kuwait, he's also thoughtful...

Is Pinch a Cinch?  Mickey Kaus in Slate discusses the success of welfare reform.  "If all the 1996 welfare reform did was take non-working single mothers on welfare and turn them into working single-mothers with exactly the same incomes, it would be a huge success."  Recommended reading...

Are you a Tivo fanatic like I am?  Then you need to read Tivo Hacks :)

The NYTimes reports that Napster, the brand bought out of bankruptcy by Roxio, is going to buy Pressplay, the online music service from Universal and Sony.  Pressplay has been a disaster so far, but no wonder; $10/month for streaming and downloading only (no burning, no MP3 player support), and $18/month adds 10 "portable" downloads per month.  And they only have music from Universal and Sony.  Well, maybe Roxio can do something good with it...  Apple has certainly shown the way.

[ Update: CNet has this story, too. ]

Remember the great "should Google index blogs" discussion?  Well, it continues...  Microdoc News notes What Google Leaves Out, an interesting analysis of which 30% of the [estimated] 10B web pages Google indexes.

Scoble suggests Google could improve its index by getting rid of bloggers who "aren't authoritative".  Yeah, so who decides?  Well, we do, by linking blogs we like and trust!  That's how the web works, and that's why Google's approach to indexing - 'you are what other people say you are' - is so powerful.  This follows his earlier observation that Google is getting pressure from advertisers to de-emphasize weblogs.

Dave writes It you want to be in Google, you gotta be on the Web.  Seems obvious, but this is why a lot of "authoritative" sources don't rate highly on Google.  Many newspapers' online archives are limited to a short period of time, like a week or a month.  How silly is that?  Meanwhile bloggers pretty much leave everything they ever wrote up "forever".

Ed Cone blogs some great suggestions for journalists with weblogs.  Actually they are good for any blogger...

Dan Gilmor writes about OhMyNews, a popular South Korean online news service which employs citizen-reporters.  "Over 15,000 have contributed articles."  Kind of like The Command Post on steroids.  It looks like a nice site - lots of pictures, nicely laid out - but unfortunately I can't read Korean.  [ via Boing Boing ]


God and Beauty

Monday,  05/19/03  10:38 PM

This article is about the nature of beauty.  It is not really about God, but it sort of is.  You'll see.

Atheism and the Anthropic Principle

Let me begin by explaining how I came to write.  I've been following a recent debate between Steven Den Beste and The Raving Atheist.  Both self-avowed atheists, their debate is about whether atheism can be "proven", that is, whether there is a way to prove or disprove the existence of a God.  Mr. Raving claims it can, while Mr. Den Beste claims it cannot.  I can't possibly do this interesting debate justice, so if you're interested I direct you to their respective blogs and you can decide. 

In the course of posting about the provability of the existence of God, Steven quoted from an email he'd received from a reader:

Which brings me to my main argument for [the existence of God].  Beauty.  Not only did God create this big, beautiful universe, he endowed us with the ability to appreciate that beauty.  Explain to me how your mechanistic universe produces a humanity that can say, "Wow, what a beautiful sunset!"  Show me how natural selection would produce a species that likes to smell and look at flowers when we don't eat the darned things (for the most part).  Why would we even find those [cosmological] pictures you have at the top of your site even mildly attractive?

Theists often invoke the existence of beauty as proof for the existence of God - this is a conventional argument.

Steven takes an equally conventional tack in refuting this argument; he invokes the "anthropic principle".  Large books have been written on this subject, but here's a brief synopsis:

The anthropic principle asserts that the laws, constants, and basic structure of the universe are not completely arbitrary; they are constrained by the requirement that they must allow for the existence of intelligent observers, namely us.

Another way to say this is that since we exist, the universe we live in must be a universe which supports our existence.  When you put it that way, it seems almost too obvious, doesn't it?  Nonetheless there is a lot of subtlety in this argument, and it is often used incorrectly.  The atheist rebuttal to the "beauty as proof of God" is that since we perceive beauty, the universe we live in must be a universe which contains beauty.  It is what it is.  Note that to dispute "beauty as proof of God" one shows that beauty could exist without God, which is quite different from showing that God does not exist.

Okay, enough of atheism.  I happen not to be an atheist, but I completely agree with Steven that God's existence is not subject to proof; it is purely a matter of belief.  So - what is beauty?

The Natural Selection of Beauty

In addition to being a theist, I am also a Darwinist, and I therefore believe that natural selection is sufficient to explain the existence of the universe and everything in it.  If that is so, then it must explain the existence of beauty.  If we can show that beauty evolved by natural selection, then we can also refute the "beauty as proof of God" another way - we will have shown that beauty can exist without God.  Again, this doesn't prove God doesn't exist, it merely shows that the existence of beauty does not logically imply the existence of God.

Let's revisit the question "what is beauty"?  First, let's agree that beauty is an attribute of things which is perceptual.  Beauty is not only "in the eye of the beholder", but it is only in the eye of a beholder; it does not exist in and of itself.  Something can be a certain color, or a certain shape, or have a certain texture, or exhibit particular patterns, and these things are innate.  But beauty is a meta-property of color, shape, texture, pattern, etc. which is derived by an observer.  So to ask "what is beauty" is really to ask "why do humans perceive things as beautiful?"

Before diving into this, let's consider a related question, which is "why do we perceive things 'as' anything?"  In other words, why do we categorize the objects around us?  Classification is a higher level cognitive function.  A great deal of intelligence is pattern recognition, and pattern recognition is essentially classification.  Chunking things together enables analogy, and analogy is a powerful tool for estimating future events.  It is easy to see that this could help individuals survive.  The better your ability to predict the future, the less likely bad things will happen to you.  Classification is naturally selected for because of its survival value, in other words, individuals who were able to predict future events with greater accuracy would tend to contribute more children into the next generation.  The key survival formula is:

pattern recognition -> classification -> analogy -> prediction -> survival

It is not a stretch to say this is at the core of cognition.  We think in order to predict, and we predict because doing so gives us a greater chance of surviving.

Perhaps it would be helpful to digress with a brief example.  You are walking along a path and come to a cliff.  If you continue walking and do not make any prediction about the future, you will fall off the cliff and be killed.  Now suppose that you had previously seen someone else walking on this path, and they continued walking, fell off the cliff, and died.  You absorbed this information and use it to make a prediction, and hence avoid falling.

{ You are able to recognize the pattern "people who walk off a cliff get hurt", and make an analogy between that pattern and your current situation.  This requires that you form a class of "people", and recognize that you belong to it. }

Next suppose that later you come to a different cliff.  Again you can make a prediction, and avoid falling. 

{ You are able to make an analogy between the pattern "people who walk off a cliff get hurt" and the new situation.  This requires that you form a class of "cliffs", and recognize the new cliff belongs to this class. }

Finally suppose that you are walking and darkness falls.  If you continue walking, you may encounter a cliff and fall off it.  You may not be near a cliff, but it is too dark to know.  If you stop walking you can avoid falling.

{ You are able to compute some probability that the pattern "people who walk off a cliff get hurt" might apply to this situation.  This requires that you form a class of "dangerous situations", assign cliffs to this class, and then recognize that your current circumstances might match the pattern. }

This sort of computation goes on constantly for every person.  As we experience life we accumulate knowledge which we classify, and then use it to predict future events.

Okay, back to the main thread.  I've probably sold you on the survival value of classification.  Let's go back to beauty...  Given that we classify all sorts of things in all sorts of ways, what does the classification "beautiful" really mean?

I often cite a simple formula I semi-jokingly call the "equation of life":

W=UH, where W=wrongness, U=ugliness, and H=hardness

This equation can be summarized as "if something is ugly or hard, it is wrong".  I say semi-jokingly because I don't want to take it too seriously, but actually this equation seems to have significant predictive value.  I have empirically observed that in many different areas and in many different ways, if something is ugly (not beautiful) or something is hard (not easy) it will be wrong (not right).

In everyday application of W=UH, typically you have a situation, you make a mental estimate of U and H, and you derive a rough W.  How do you do this?  Well, estimating H is usually straightforward, you estimate how long something will take, or how possible it is, or how complex.  Essentially you say "how easy is this?", and H is the inverse.  Note this requires prediction by analogy - you use other tasks you've performed in the past to guess.  Estimating U is a little different.  Essentially you say "how beautiful is this?", and U is the inverse.  We all have this sense of beauty, but it is ephemeral, sometimes you can put your finger on why something is beautiful, but often you can't.  You know it is, but you don't know why.

Suppose this simple formula has survival value.  You could see that this could be; resources would not be wasted on accomplishing tasks the wrong way.  Expending resources efficiently has great survival value.  Then individuals who can compute this formula well are selected over individuals who can't.  (If the formula has survival value, this would necessarily be true.)  Okay, we've reached the key point.  Are you ready?  Since computing W=UH well has survival value, and since H can be estimated relatively easily by analogy, it follows that estimating U well would have survival value.  If ugliness is the absence of beauty, then having a sense of beauty enables survival!  QED and all that.

How about an example?  Let's say there are two beavers, each building a dam.  They are faced with similar problems (moving large branches, digging mud, wedging sticks, etc.) and can approach each problem in multiple ways.  From previous experience they can probably form some estimate of how easy each approach might be.  If they've had similar experiences, their abilities in this would be similar.  Now suppose Beaver A has a strong sense of beauty.  She can readily choose the "right" method because it seems "beautiful".  Perhaps it is simple, or elegant, or in some way that she can't pin down it is pleasing.  Beaver B does not have a strong sense of beauty.  She cannot choose the "right" method, because she can't estimate U, so she uses H alone as a guide.  She can choose methods which are easy or methods which are hard, but she can't choose the "right" methods.  She doesn't have that same sense of simplicity and elegance.  Beaver A is going to be more successful at building the dam - it will take her less time, expose her to less danger, enable her to build a better dam, etc.  All these things convey survival value.  Beaver A will have a better chance of passing her genes into the next generation than Beaver B, and hence her sense of beauty will be naturally selected.

Do you buy this?  Or does this seem theoretically possible but farfetched?  Perhaps it would be helpful to consider how we humans actually use our sense of beauty.  Let's consider some applications of "beauty" and see if it appears to have survival value.

First and foremost, we use beauty to classify individuals.  And not just as a metric, but as a value judgment.  People who are beautiful are good, people who are not beautiful are not good.  (This is not a moral judgment on my part, this is how I claim people use the classification of"beauty" in actual practice.)  Not only is beauty a good/bad distinction, but it is good/bad in a very specific way - suitability for sex.  People who are beautiful are good for mating with, people who are not beautiful are not good for mating.  Clearly this use of beauty is heavily weighted for survival value, because it impacts something as critical to genetic reproduction as selection of mates.  If this use of beauty did not have survival value, it would not have been selected.

Again let's take an example.  Let's say there are two beavers, each seeking a mate.  Beaver A has a strong sense of beauty, and selects the most beautiful mate he can.  Beaver B does not have a strong sense of beauty, and selects a mate based on other factors ("easiness", for example!).  Both A and B have offspring with their mates which will compete with each other.  If A's offspring are more successful, the use of "beauty" in selecting mates will become more prevalent in the next generation, whereas if B's offspring win, the use of "beauty" will be de-emphasized.  Over many generations natural selection will "choose" whether a sense of beauty is valuable in choosing a mate.  The fact that beauty is the most important mate-selection factor for humans is significant - clearly there is great survival value in having a sense of beauty and using it to choose a mate.

There are many other ways we apply "beauty".  Objects can be beautiful, either because of their functionality or because they are "pleasing to the senses".  It is easy to understand why functional objects are beautiful, and this has a direct relationship to their value.  The aesthetic judgment follows a logical path.  But what about art?  Most art can be thought of as objects created specifically for their beauty.  Do these objects have survival value?  No.  Most art is beautiful by analogy; it emulates things we do classify as beautiful for their practical value.  And some art is beautiful in a different way - as an interesting representation of a beautiful idea.  The idea might have survival value, even if the physical representation of the idea as art does not.

Ideas themseleves can be beautiful, usually from a sense of elegance or simplicity.  It is easy to identify these ideas with survival value, this gets back to the efficient use of resources.  And some ideas are beautiful in a different way - as interesting representations of classes of ideas.  These meta-ideas are called philosophy.  In a way, engaging in philosophical discussion exemplifies application of a sense of beauty.  This recursion is beautiful in itself, in kind of a recursive, beautiful way...

So the way we humans use beauty as a classification does indeed appear to bear a relationship to the things' survival value, whether they be potential mates, objects, or ideas.  This doesn't mean our sense of beauty did evolve via natural selection, but it could have.

God and Beauty

So, that's a lot of words, what are the takeaways?  First, we considered whether "beauty implies God".  The anthropic principle can be applied to show beauty can exist without God, but we wanted to show that beauty could be naturally selected.  We asked "what is beauty?", and agreed it is a classification.  Then we asked "why classify things?", and showed that classification was an important survival technique.  Next we considered whether classifying things as beautiful could have survival value, and demonstrated that a sense of beauty could be used for determining "wrongness" (via W=UH), and that indeed this does have survival value.  Finally we considered the actual applications of beauty to classifying people, objects, and ideas, and saw that they were consistent with the hypothesized survival value.

So - beauty does not imply God; our sense of beauty could have evolved from natural selection.  Which is terrific, because as an idea natural selection is quite beautiful!



Tuesday,  05/20/03  11:45 PM

There is no spoonSaw The Matrix Reloaded tonight.  Was blown away.  Can't wait to see it again...

Bill Whittle has a new post: Magic.  If you're unfamiliar with Eject!Eject!Eject! please make time to click over; Bill is a premier long-form essay style blogger...

The most famous scientist of all time has his own website: The Einstein Archives online.  I can't say it is a great site; it only works in Windows IE, and there is no search!  Still, if you want to read the General Theory of Relativity paper in German, this is the place to go.

Apropos to my discussion of God and Beauty, consider the case of the Danish "art" display which featured goldfish inside working blenders.  Is this beautiful?  No.  Does this illustrate a beautiful idea?  No.  So, is this art?  No!  Sheesh.

Next up: art museum directors inside working blenders.  Now that would be art.

More on the Google / blogs discussion; turns out the NYTimes tells Google to get lost.  (For those of you unfamiliar with this technology, website's can have a file named robots.txt which tells "robots" like Google's search engine which pages not to visit.)  The NYT's file tells all robots to leave it alone.  Added to their 7-day link horizon, basically they are a non-source for search engine information.  No wonder blogs rate higher, and they should!The Aibo robotic dog

Microdoc News analyses the Dynamics of a Blogosphere story.

Sony has created a software add-on for their Aibo robot dog which enables owners to control their robotic pets via e-mail.  The dogs can also capture images with their "eyes" and send them wirelessly to nearby computer.

No word on whether the dogs will be able to blog :)

Intuit has announced it is dropping copy protection from TurboTax, following consumer backlash against the feature.  Business 2.0 calls this Intuit's Lesson for Microsoft and Hollywood.  This is an example of something Intuit does really well - listening to its customers.  And in this, Hollywood, particularly the RIAA and the MPAA, truly can learn a lesson.

Intuit's CEO Steve Bennett is on the cover of the latest Business 2.0 issue.  Nice story about he imported the process excellence philosophy from GE into a software company.  [ The story isn't online yet, sorry, no link. ]

In closing, we have the LAKS wristwatch USB disk drive.  I am not making this up.


Wednesday,  05/21/03  11:43 PM

Greetings from Modesto!  (don't ask)

Escher WaterfallThis is SO COOL!  Check out this water feature, with water flowing perpetually uphill.  Reminds you of an Escher print, doesn't it?  The BBC tells you how it was done...  I just love stuff like this.  [ via Boing Boing ]

It isn't done like this, but it would be cool if it was :)

Cut on the Bias hosts this weeks' Carnival of the Vanities - straight, with biased commentary.  My discovery this week is John Lemon's Barrel of Fish; check out "Money for Nothing and Your Grades for Free"!

Dan Gilmor: "Google co-founder Sergey Brin said there were no plans to segregate weblog content from the main search engine results."  Well, that is pretty authoritative.

Want to know what's up with SARS?  Check out these graphs.  Really a great way to see the progression of the disease, broken out by country.  The most significant is the "Cumulative Total" graph, fourth from the bottom.  Based on this it certainly seems that the disease is being brought under control.  Excellent.

On the Fritz: The SARS-spreading Sneetches.  More proof, if any were required, that you can find anything on the web.


Thursday,  05/22/03  10:42 PM

Earth as seen from MarsWhat does Earth look like when viewed from Mars?  Like this.  Cool pictures from the Mars Global Surveyor.  "A fortuitous alignment of Earth and Jupiter - the first planetary conjunction viewed from another planet - permitted the MOC to acquire an image of both of these bodies and their larger satellites."

Remember my caravans idea?  ZDNet has done a series on high-tech cars, and Patrick Houston discusses the new high-tech cruise controls in his column.  The positioning is safety, not efficiency, but the essential capability of these devices is the same.  Interesting reading...  I have to check out one of these cars.

Check out this fascinating post by Omnibus Bill on the University of Michigan affirmative action case.  Apparently UMich had proof from their own studies that racial preferences in their admissions policies were not helping, but continues to pursue them anyway.  An interesting contrast with the University of Texas' 10% policy, which says nothing about race but has increased diversity significantly.

The affirmative action debates remind me of debates about the economic value of communism in the late 1970s; after the clear failure of the policy was already apparent (in Eastern Europe), people still argued for the theoretical benefit.  Affirmative action in US Universities has been tried, and it didn't work.  Let's move on.

Wired reports a weird probable cause case:  "After police in Washington state placed a tracking device in a suspect's car, he inadvertently led them to a shallow grave where his daughter's body was buried. Now the convicted killer claims his rights were violated."

Habib MiyanThe world's oldest man?  Habib Miyan says he is 132, but according to records he is a mere 125.  He was born in 1878 - imagine the changes this man has seen in his lifetime.  Wow.

Yippee!  Tivo's loss shrinks as sales jump.

Tim Bray ponders RDF.  "RDF has ignored what I consider to be the central lesson of the World Wide Web, the 'View Source' lesson."  I celebrate these articles by experts which validate my own impression, which is that there is no 'there' there in The Semantic Web.

Further affirmation: Sean McGrath links Tim's Article, and says amen.  "A lot of XML technologies these days are big bags of complexity."  Does that make them wrong?  Yes.

The benefits of high-tech: Ice wine and cool technology.  Yum.


Moving Mount Fuji

Saturday,  05/24/03  01:22 PM

I just read "How Would You Move Mount Fuji", a great new book by William Poundstone about puzzles as technical interview questions.  I enjoyed it a lot - it is an easy read, and kind of "fluffy"; I blew through it in two days.  I think it would be helpful for anyone seeking a technical position who is likely to be asked some of these questions.  I'm more often in the position of interviewing people and asking these questions, and I found it terrifically helpful.

It isn't as Microsoft-centric as you might think based on the subtitle ("How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers") - this was a pleasant surprise.  I found it relevant to the startups I've been involved in as well as bigger companies.

Besides being useful, it was quite entertaining.  I enjoyed the background on IQ testing, political correctness, and how puzzles came to be asked in technical interviews.  I enjoy puzzle solving, and it was fun to be able to take a stab at the various "hard" questions given as examples in the book.  I don't know if I would be hired at Microsoft, but at least I wouldn't hate their interview process.

The book is also pleasantly "current"; there are interviews with Joel Spolsky and Chris Sells, and links to a number of technical interview websites:

Interview Question Bank (Kiran Bondalapti)
Techinterview (Michael Pryor)
Interviewing at Microsoft (Chris Sells)
Riddles (William Wu)
How to hack the Microsoft interview
Ace the Interview

Key takeaways for me:

  • Each interview question has a purpose.  Typically you are trying to guard against "false positives", hiring people who don't work out.  ("false negatives" or passing on people who would have been great is not nearly as harmful.)  So you want to ask questions which all qualified candidates can answer well, so as to identify non-qualified candidates.  Asking questions which only a subset of qualified candidates can answer is bad.
  • Trick questions are not helpful.  The candidate might know the trick or guess it, but that doesn't tell you much.  Questions which require a steady logical approach but no great leap of insight are much better.
  • There are two kinds of puzzle questions - those which have "an answer", and those which are asked to elicit a discussion but which don't have one right answer.  The former are good as filters - if a candidate can't find the answer, you give a thumbs down.  The latter are good for comparison purposes - you can contrast candidates' approaches and answers - and also they give you a better "feel" for the person.

Two points I think the booked missed:

  • It is good to ask all the candidates for a position the same questions.  Microsoft might be able to hire from a pool of 10,000 applicants, but in the real world you have an open position, you narrow the field to three qualified candidates you like, and you have to decide.  Being able to evaluate their approach and answers to the same questions is very helpful - it makes for more of an apple-to-apple comparison.
  • Interviewing is two-way, you want to qualify the candidate for the position, and you want to sell the candidate on the company/position.  Perhaps Microsoft doesn't need to "sell", but in every real world situation I've been in my company did.  Viewed this way, puzzle questions need to do two jobs, first, they need to help qualify candidates, and second, they convey information about the company and you, the interviewer.  In the context of this second job, a question is better if it is "cool", fun, and relevant to what the company does.  I sometimes take a puzzle question and shift it into a more relevant and entertaining context (instead of dwarves and pirates, use program managers and investors, instead of gold pieces, use iPods).

The book did a nice balanced job on whether puzzles are really a good technique in interviewing.  On the one hand they are a good proxy for IQ tests, maybe better, because you really get some insight into how people think as well as how smart they are, and on the other hand they're pretty artificial, they don't necessarily relate to the tasks of the open position. 

Clearly puzzles cannot take the place of "real work".  If you're hiring a programmer, you have to see their code.  Ask them to bring some examples with them, and ask them to code something during the interview.  If you're hiring a marketing person, ask them to describe a product they worked on, how they characterized the market, how they designed the feature set, etc.  If you're hiring a manager, ask them about management challenges ("give an example of a case where you turned an unmotivated employee around").

Puzzles do have an important role to play.  First, they give you a good idea of how smart someone is.  Maybe this isn't the only metric, or the main metric, but it is really important.  You can't teach speed, and you can't teach intelligence, either.  Second, they give you an idea of how people think.  When they get stuck, can they get themselves un-stuck?  Do they ask good questions?  Do they enlarge the scope of the problem to look at a bigger picture?  Do they simplify and try for something easy?  Finally, puzzles give some indication of the type of personality a candidate may have.  Some people like puzzles, like competition, like challenges.  Some people don't.  I'm not claiming either is better, but knowing this about a candidate is helpful in assessing whether they're a fit for your company and position.

Okay, okay, I'll give some examples.  Here are my favorite questions from the book:

[ Later: There is more possible complexity to this question, please see Revisiting the Bridge of the Programmers. ]

Finally, here is the worst question asked in the book:

  • Mike and Todd have $21 between them.  Mike has $20 more than Todd.  How much does each have (you can't use fractions in the answer).  [This question has no answer!]

Apparently sometimes people ask questions which have no answer to see how candidates react.  This might be helpful in some situations (if you're hiring for a company with a confrontational culture!), but I would never use it; I don't like what it says about me and my company, and I can't imagine what it would say about the candidate, either.

[ Later: This question does have an answer - please see The $21 Question. ]

The book has more good questions, as do the websites linked above; if you're into solving puzzles, check them out...

Oh, and here's my personal favorite "work related question" (not from the book):

I just want to wrap up with one observation, which is also highlighted in the book.  The interviewer's attitude when asking puzzle questions is very important.  Ideally this should be fun, like "here's a cool problem, how would you solve it?"  If the candidate has trouble getting started, gently guide them with hints.  Generally I lead them around until they've definitely gotten an answer, so at least they don't feel like they've failed (even if I'm thinking they're not very smart because I had to pretty much give them the answer).  You don't want the interview to be confrontational or unpleasant.  You might decide not to make the candidate an offer, but you don't want them to form a negative impression of your company.

Got a favorite technical interview question or anecdote?  Please share!




















How many piano tuners are there in the world?

This is one of those questions which doesn't have a "right" answer; nobody really knows the answer, and you probably can't Google to find it.  But there is a way to come up with a reasonable estimate, and this is obviously what the interviewer wants you to do.  (I sometimes have asked "how many gas stations are there in the United States", which is the same sort of question.  Other variations include "how many ping pong balls would fit in this building", "how much does a 747 weigh", and of course, "how would you move Mount Fuji".)

Here's one form of the answer:

  1. Estimate the number of people in the U.S.
  2. Estimate how many of them own pianos.
  3. Estimate how many "other" pianos there are.
  4. Estimate how long it takes to tune a piano.
  5. Estimate how often a piano needs tuning.
  6. Using 4 and 5, estimate how many piano tuners per piano.
  7. Using 2, 3, and 6, estimate how many piano tuners there are in the U.S.
  8. Estimate the number of people in Europe, Japan, etc. (First World)
  9. Using 7 and 8, estimate the number of piano tuners in the First World.
  10. Estimate the number of people in Russia, China, etc. (Second World)
  11. Estimate the ratio of First World to Second World pianos.
  12. Using 9, 10, and 11, estimate the number of piano tuners in the Second World.
  13. Estimate the number of people in the rest of the World (Third World)
  14. Estimate the ratio of First World to Third World pianos.
  15. Using 9, 13, and 14, estimate the number of piano tuners in the Third World.
  16. Sum 9, 12, and 15 to estimate the total number of piano tuners.

Plugging in the "right" numbers is not nearly as important as coming up with the approach.  If you gave the above schema for computing an answer, the interviewer would be pleased.

[Return to question...]




















How do you cut a rectangular cake into two equal pieces with one straight cut when someone has already removed a rectangular piece from it?  (The removed piece can be of any size or any orientation.)

Rectangular CakeThis question definitely has a right answer.  It might be argued that it involves a bit of a "trick", but I still like it.  The trick is knowing or realizing that any line passing through the center point of a rectangle bisects it.  Before you remove the rectangular piece from the cake, there are infinitely many lines which bisect the cake.  After you remove the rectangular piece, there is only one - the line which passes through both the center of the cake, and the center of the removed rectangular piece.  This line necessarily divides the removed piece in half, and hence the same amount of cake was removed from each half of the remaining portion.

The value in this question is not only seeing if a candidate can compute the answer, but watching them eliminate non-solutions.  The fact that there is no constraint on the location of the removed rectangular piece is key.  Perhaps they will ask for constraints ("can I assume the removed piece is along an edge").  I wouldn't say "no", I'd say "in what way is that helpful".  They would probably realize after a little trial-and-error that such a constraint is not helpful, and that might guide them toward the solution.

P.S. There is another solution - cut the cake in half vertically!  (With a single horizontal slice.)  I'd say this gets points for creativity, but I'd still want to see the candidate solve the problem the other way.

[Return to question...]




















You have five jars of pills and one scale.  All the pills in one jar only are "contaminated", they weigh 9 grams instead of 10.  How do you tell which jar is contaminated with just one weighing?

This is a classic technical interview puzzle.  There really isn't a trick - it is a matter of working through the possible solutions to find one which works.  There are possibly some assumptions you have to get out of the way - make sure you've framed the problem correctly - and then the answer emerges.

You basically have five unknowns - each of the jars could be the one which is contaminated.  You are only allowed to perform one weighing, and the answer must discriminate amongst the five unknowns.  So how does one weighing give you one of five possibilities?  Well, clearly the result of the weighing is a number, so you have to design the experiment so the numeric result tells you what you want to know.

One of the assumptions you have to get through is that weighing the jars themselves is helpful.  After a little thought you realize it isn't.  Another assumption is that you can only weigh one pill from each jar.  This is not a stated constraint, and in fact weighing only one pill from each jar won't get you the answer.  The solution is to weigh a different number of pills from each jar.  Say you take one pill from jar#1, two from jar#2, three from jar#3, and four from jar#4.  (You can take five from jar#5 or more elegantly zero from jar#5, either way you'll get the answer.)  Now there are five cases and five possible results:

  1. Jar#1 is contaminated.  The weight will be 1x9 + 2x10 + 3x10 + 4x10 = 99.
  2. Jar#2 is contaminated.  The weight will be 1x10 + 2x9 + 3x10 + 4x10 = 98.
  3. Jar#3 is contaminated.  The weight will be 1x10 + 2x10 + 3x9 + 4x10 = 97.
  4. Jar#4 is contaminated.  The weight will be 1x10 + 2x10 + 3x10 + 4x9 = 96.
  5. Jar#5 is contaminated.  The weight will be 1x10 + 2x10 + 3x10 + 4x10 = 100.

This would be a pons asinorum for me, that is, if a candidate couldn't figure this out after a while, I'd probably consider them non-qualified.

[Return to question...]




















Count in base negative 2.

This question is a little troublesome in that if the candidate has encountered it before, they'll probably breeze through it, and if they haven't, it might take them a moment to get their mind around the concept of a "negative base".  I still like it.

So, a negative base.  What does "base" really mean?  Well, it determines the base for an equation of the form:

cnbn + cn-1bn-1 + ... + c1b1 + c0b0

The c coefficients are the digits in a number.  If b < 0, then the factors with even exponents will be positive, but the factors with odd exponents will be negative.  This makes for some slight weirdness.  A system with base -2 needs two digit values, let's call them 0 and 1.  Then:

1  = 1
10 = -2
100 = 4
1000 = -8
10000 = 16

And so on.  Counting is a little counter intuitive.  Here's the first few integers:

1 = 1
2 = 110  (4 + -2!)
3 = 111
4 = 100
5 = 101
6 = 11010  (16 + -8 + -2, if you get this, you've got them all)
7 = 11011
8 = 11000
9 = 11001

If a candidate got this far, I'd give them full credit.  However, for extra credit they might note that this binary sequence also contains negative numbers!  Here are the first few negative integers:

-1 = 11  (-2 + 1)
-2 = 10
-3 = 1101  (-8 + 4 + 1)
-4 = 1100  (-8 + 4)
-5 = 1111  (-8 + 4 + -2 + 1)
-6 = 1110
-7 = 1001
-8 = 1000

This is a pretty cool thing, that by using a negative base, all the integers are representable in binary!  If a candidate thought this was cool, too, I'd think they were cool :)

[Return to question...]




















You have three baskets filled with fruit.  One has apples, one has oranges, one has a mixture of both.  You cannot see inside the baskets.  Each basket is clearly labeled, and each is labeled incorrectly.  How can you determine what's in each basket by choosing only one fruit from one basket?

This question is kind of standard-issue; like the pill jars, it requires that you work through the possibilities logically.  There is really no "aha", except maybe to pay attention to the given fact that each basket is labeled incorrectly.  This is the key to the solution.

There are really only three choices - you can pull a fruit from the "oranges" basket, the "apples" basket, or the "mixed" basket.  Let's see what happens in each case.

Suppose you walk up to the basket labeled "oranges", and pull out an orange.  Since you know the basket is mislabeled, this cannot really be the oranges-only basket, so it must be the mixed basket.  The other two baskets are labeled "mixed" and "apples".  They're both wrong, so the one labeled "mixed" must be "apples", and the one labeled "apples" must be "oranges".  Next suppose you pull out an apple.  This could be the apples-only basket or the mixed basket, you can't tell!  So pulling a fruit from the "oranges" basket is not helpful.  By symmetry pulling a fruit from the "apples" basket would be equally, er, fruitless.

Now suppose you walk up to the "mixed" basket and pull out an orange.  Since the basket is mislabeled, this cannot really be the mixed basket.  And it can't be the "apples" basket, so it must be the "oranges" basket.  The other two baskets are labeled "apples" and "oranges".  They're both wrong, so the one labeled "apples" is really "mixed", and the one labeled "oranges" must be apples.  The same logic applies if you pull out an apple, so this is the solution.

As with the pill jars, I really would expect to be able to coax a candidate through this problem successfully.  Actually it is pretty easy, so I would hope they could figure it out for themselves.  What I like about it is that it is a simple matter of working through a fixed number of choices, and this comes up in programming design all the time.

[Return to question...]




















Four programmers must cross a rickety bridge at night.  The bridge can only hold two of them at a time, and they have one flashlight between them.  The four programmers cross at different speeds, Alex only requires one minute, Sam requires two, Pat requires four, and Francis requires eight.  What is the shortest time in which they can all cross?

The most obvious solution which occurs to most people after working on this problem for a bit is as follows:

Alex + Sam -> far side (2 minutes)
Alex -> near side (1 minute, total = 3 minutes)
Alex + Pat -> far side (4 minutes, total = 7 minutes)
Alex -> near side (1 minute, total = 8 minutes)
Alex + Francis -> far side (8 minutes, total = 16 minutes)

This is a good solution because it uses Alex to ferry the flashlight back after each trip.  Alex is the fastest, so this seems to make sense.  Sam, Pat, and Francis each need to cross the bridge, so that's 2 + 4 + 8 = 14 minutes, and Alex has to come back twice, so that's 2 more minutes for a total of 16.  How could that not be optimal?

Note: sometimes people give variations of this puzzle with non-power-of-2 values.  That's fine, the problem still works, but I find this version to be best.  Once you derive an answer of 16 to a problem with powers of 2, you really feel like "I got it".

After giving a sub-optimal answer to this problem, many people refuse to believe it is wrong.  I love this problem for exactly this reason.  If a candidate works it out by themselves, terrific, they get full credit, but if they get the good-but-wrong answer and accept that it is wrong, and continue digging, I give them full credit for that, too.  (There is a bit of an "aha" involved.)  Sometimes people don't believe there's a better answer, and start to argue with you; that's a bad sign; it is good to have confidence, but not good to be closed to new ideas.

So, how could this be done any better

Before giving that part of the answer, let me digress for something else.  The optimal answer to this question is actually 15.  (Yep, it is, I'll tell you how in a moment.)  Now if you were to ask: "how can the four programmers cross in 15 minutes", you may very well stump the candidate.  This isn't what you want.  Ideally you want the candidate to chew on the problem, work out a solution, and then defend it.  This gives you a lot more insight into how the candidate thinks, and they have a sense of accomplishment.  Otherwise if they fail to get 15, they'll feel bad, and you'll feel like you tricked them.

Okay, back to the optimal answer.  The key insight - the thing which is a bit of an "aha" - is to have Francis and Pat cross at the same time.  They're the two slowest, so essentially this gives you the second-slowest crossing for free.  It isn't obvious how to make this happen, though; here's the most likely first attempt:

Francis + Pat -> far side (8 minutes)
Pat -> near side (4 minutes, total = 12 minutes, already something seems wrong)
Pat + Alex -> far side (4 minutes, total = 16 minutes, you know this won't work...)

Pat had to come back with the flashlight.  This made his 4 minutes far from free, because not only does he have to come back, he has to cross again.  Not good.  So what if Pat didn't have to come back?  What if a faster programmer were already on the far side and could bring the flashlight back instead?  Aha!

Alex + Sam -> far side (2 minutes)
Alex -> near side (1 minute, total = 3 minutes)
Francis + Pat -> far side (8 minutes, total = 11 minutes)
Sam -> near side (2 minutes, total = 13 minutes, this is the key!)
Sam + Alex -> far side (2 minutes, total = 15 minutes)

Excellent, eh?  And yet it is quite logical.  An exhaustive analysis of all the possibilities in a relatively small solution space would find this easily.

[Return to question...]




















Consider a pool table with the balls setup for a break.  You must write a program which models the table, so you can predict where all the balls will end up.  How do you approach this?

This question doesn't have a "right answer".  I've found that candidates are usually a little bewildered by the problem - there seem to be a lot of hidden gotchas, like the fact the balls will hit each other - but good programmers methodically work through the situation and come up with a decent model.  There are three things to look for in the candidate's answer.

First, do they deal all the physical constants out of the deck?  Hopefully they can immediately ignore all that stuff, treat them as constants, and move on.  When people ask detailed questions about the masses of the balls, pool cue velocity, etc., I get worried.

Second, do they take an object-oriented approach?  To model a problem with sixteen identical balls, six identical pockets, etc., one would hopefully do so...  If they don't go there themselves I'll ask "what objects would you need?", and "what are the properties and methods of each object?"  If they can't think about the problem in this way, that's a red flag.

Third, how do they deal with time?  Sometimes it takes a candidate a little while to realize time is a factor.  (Some candidates never realize time is a factor!)  Ideally they'll come up with some sort of discrete time simulation, where they have an outer loop that cycles through units of time, and computes the new position of each object.  If they don't deal with time correctly their solution is incomplete.  Sometimes candidates try to solve this problem with a completely analytical solution, where they model the table and then laboriously compute the trajectory of each ball.  Naturally this involves the other balls, and so this becomes a computational nightmare.  Strong candidates recognize this approach is too hard to be right, and backtrack.

A couple of things to watch out for on this problem...  Occasionally I've interviewed candidates who were unfamiliar with the details of a pool table.  You have to walk them through the shape of the table, the fact there are sixteen balls, the break position, etc.  This definitely makes the hurdle higher.  Fortunately most people have at least passing familiarity with pool.  Also, some people get hung up on implementing their solution in a particular computing language.  They start writing C++ classes or whatever.  Although it is helpful to watch candidates code, this question isn't the right one to get them coding, because an actual solution is going to be too detailed and take more time than you have in an interview.  So you have to gently lead them back to the concepts.

[Return to question...]



Job Seeking Advice

Saturday,  05/24/03  10:26 PM

I have a friend who's seeking a job after having run his own business for many years.  I'm not the greatest job seeker in the world nor the most experienced, so this could be quite wrong, but here's my advice to him...

First, you need a resume.  This cannot take over one day to produce.  After you have one, send it to five people you trust who have done a lot of hiring, and ask for their feedback – tell them to be very critical.  Iterate after you get the feedback, then do it again.  After two iterations you've probably reached the point of diminishing returns.

If you have no idea where to start, get some samples from friends, preferably ones who do a lot of hiring.

Some thoughts about resumes:

  • Resumes will never get you a job, but they will keep you from getting a job.  The goal of a resume is to get you an interview.  Don't put anything in a resume which would give you a “no”.
  • Resumes should be short and interesting.  Nothing is worse to a hiring manager than a stack of long boring resumes.  Eliminate extra words.
  • Resumes for experienced job seekers have a certain form – typically reverse chrono.  Stick to the form.  Check spelling.  White space is good.  Colors and graphics are bad.
  • Word documents are expected.  Check in advance how it looks when saved as text – sometimes people do that.  Some jobs sites require a text resume.  After you've iterated into a resume you like, maybe create a text version which is a little cleaned up for these situations.
  • Describe what you've accomplished and how.  Use verbs.  Be specific.  Emphasize creativity and problem solving skills.  Lists of projects are more interesting and illuminating than lists of skills.  Avoid an alphabet soup of “capabilities” without context.  You want to mention as many technologies as possible (sometimes people are looking for a particular skillset, and if you don't appear to have it, they'll treat you as a “no”), but do it in the context of projects you've done.
  • Emphasize projects and experience related to the job you're seeking.  For example, if you are looking for a position as a network engineer, stress network stuff, if you're looking for a position as a programmer, stress that.  You may be applying for two kinds of jobs so you might want to have two resumes – sub-optimal for you, but better for your chances of being hired.  Great experience doing non-relevant things is not usually a plus.
  • Since you've run your own business, you want to indicate the projects you've done and the companies you've done them for…  If there’s a business you don't want them checking on, you could mention it euphemistically (“a leading women’s clothing manufacturer”).
  • Related to the previous – be clear about what you're looking for.  This is the way people figure out if you're a match for their position.  If you give a mushy description you won't match anything.  If you're looking for two different kinds of positions, you might need to have two resumes stating two objectives.

General stuff:

  • Give one phone number – preferably your cell – which has an answering machine.  The recording should confirm that it is you.
  • Give one email.
  • Give your street address. People want to know where you live because they want to assess your commute.  They can't ask about this, so anticipate.  { If you talk to a company far away, you should volunteer whether you're willing to move or discuss the commute. }


  • Again, it is important to be clear about what you're looking for.  You might have more than one goal – that’s okay – but it is easiest to have one goal to describe.  For any one company / recruiter / contact you have to pick one objective and stick to it.
  • Practice explaining your goal in a few sentences.  You're going to be saying this a lot, you should have it down.
  • Practice explaining your situation.  Why are you looking for a job, etc.  This plus your goal is going to be your standard spiel for every phone call, so you want to have it down.
  • Know how much money you want/need to make.  Be clear about this in your own mind.  People are going to ask about your salary history which of course for you will be tough to give, so you'll have to give them something instead.

Staying organized:

  • Looking for a job is a job.  Like any job, organization is helpful.  There are two ways to find jobs, 1) via websites and recruiters, and 2) via your personal network.  Posting your resume on Monster and the others is essential.  Do it.  All prospective employers and recruiters are going to be checking these sites.
  • Make a list of all your personal contacts who might possibly be a lead for a job.  Use a spreadsheet, paper binder, whatever.  For each contact, keep track of the next thing you need to do for that contact.  Send them an email?  Call them?  After you've contacted someone, update the “next thing you need to do”.  If you asked Ms. Z to check her rolodex, then the next thing you need to do is call her a week later to follow up.  Sometimes a lead is run into the ground, then there is no “next thing”, but most of the time you can always call after a while to check in.
  • As contacts give you other contacts, add them to the list.  Keep track of the relationship.  It is much more powerful to say “Ms. Z suggested I call you”.
  • As you get emails, save them and log them.
  • As you get phone calls, log them.
  • As you do interviews, log them.

Approaching contacts:

  • Unless you know there is an open position for which you may be a candidate, it is always better not to ask for a job directly.  Instead, describe what you're looking for and ask if people can recommend someone you should talk to.  If they have a matching need, they'll definitely jump in with interest, but if they don't then they don't have to turn you down (which is easier for both of you).
  • If people give you contacts, make sure it is okay to use their name.  It is powerful to say "Ms. Z suggested I call" as long as it is okay, because Mr. X is very likely going to call Ms. Z before getting back to you with interest.


  • Some of your prospecting and communicating will be done with email.  Make sure your emails go out formatted, plaintext emails are ugly.  Spell check and reread.  The goal of an email is to get to a phone call, keep them short and punchy.
    • Be super careful not to clone an email and forget to change the salutation or company name.  I've done this and man is it embarrassing.  Measure twice cut once.
  • Don't treat an un-replied-to email as a rejection.  It is really easy to ignore an email compared to a phone call.  If you don't get a reply to an email, call.

Phone calls:

  • A lot of your prospecting is going to be done over the phone.  If you have a choice between sending an email and calling, make the call.  If you can't reach someone, then leave a message saying you're sending them an email, send them an email, and call back later.
  • It is really helpful to call your own machine and give your spiel, then listen to it.  (Painful, too!)  In an hour you can tune this into something you're proud of – then it will improve as you use it from there.
  • Smile.  There is research that shows that people who smile while talking on the phone come across friendlier.  I know it sounds hokey but there it is.
  • Walk around.  People generally think better on their feet.


  • Interviews are super critical.
  • Smile.  Right away.  Research shows that the first five seconds of every interview are the most important.
  • Be yourself.  Yeah, everyone says that, but it's true.  Don't try to be the person you think the interviewer is looking for, just be you.  Remember most interviewers are nervous, too, they're trying to do a good job of interviewing.
  • Practice.  If you can, get someone you know to “interview” you, and give feedback.  Try to anticipate tough questions (“what happened to your consulting business”).  Don't interview with the company you really want to work for first, practice on some you don't care about as much.
  • Learn.  After each interview, critique yourself.  What went well?  What went badly?  What would you do differently?
  • Learn as much as you can about a company before you interview there.  Obviously visit their website and stuff like that.  One trick someone told me which really works is to call a receptionist and ask her all about the company.  If she’s new, ask her to transfer you to someone who’s been there for a while.  If they ask just tell them the truth, you're interviewing there tomorrow and you want to learn as much as you can ahead of time.
  • You're going to get technical puzzles.  It is all the rage in technical interviews.  I suggest reading “How would you move mount Fuji”, it is a great little book about puzzles in interviews. (I just read it, click for my review.) There are also websites about technical interview questions – Google for them. The most important things about puzzles are not whether you solve them, but how the interviewer feels about you. Talk out loud. Be decisive. Ask questions. Don't get stuck. Try to figure out the form of the answer.
  • The worst kind of interview is when the interviewer spends the whole time talking about themselves or their company. Then they don't learn anything about you. Try to derail this by interesting relevant anecdotes about you. If they are off talking about their great code management system, tell them about one you used. Or whatever.

Mental attitude:

  • Looking for a job sucks. It is hard work and very discouraging.  You have to get through 100 “no”s before you get to a “yes”.  Give yourself credit for persistence.  Celebrate little accomplishments.  Try to do stuff each day which moves the whale along the beach – phone calls, emails, web surfing, practicing your spiel.
  • Leverage friends.  Call them, tell them how you're doing.  Hang out.  Be honest.  We've all been there, we all know it sucks, it is helpful to share.  Don't get down on yourself - your friends will help you with this.

Final suggestion – start a blog. It is a good way to make yourself more “visible”, and posting stuff may be cathartic.  Everyone has a level of personal revelation they're comfortable with, you don't have to be any more open than you want, but you'll find it is amazingly beneficial.

Good luck!


Saturday,  05/24/03  11:07 PM

What's Up?  Well...

Inter-species SignThe wave of the future?  Inter-species traffic signs in Vancouver.  [ via Boing Boing ]

Here's a terrific quote from Dick Cavett: "If your parents never had children, chances are you won't, either."  [ via techno\culture ]  This reminds me of an interesting observation from Daniel Dennett's wonderful book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea".  Dennett notes that every one of our ancestors, every one, had children.  And not merely that, but they had children which could reproduce, and did.  As did their children.  Every living being has an unbroken line of successful reproducers in their ancestry.  And the legacy of all that reproductive success is encapsulated in our genes.

Here's an embarrassing bug: Trend Micro announced a bug in their anti-spam software; they blocked any emails containing the letter "P".  Must have been thoroughly tested code; I hate when that happens.

The Peking Duck has decided to stop blogging for a bit.  Too bad, I really enjoyed his site.

Please welcome Tim Blair to my blogroll.  He's an Aussie who seems to hit many nails on the head simultaneously, while retaining a dry sense of wit.  Excellent blogmanship.

I've decided to take Rob Smith off.  Not because he's making such a big deal out of de-linking from his blogroll (who really cares?), but because of this post and this post.  Yeah, he's funny, but he's also sometimes not funny in a way that isn't even funny.


Mt. Everest 360o

Sunday,  05/25/03  01:42 AM

Mt. Everest 360

Wow.  Check this out - a 360o panorama taken from the top of Mt. Everest, courtesy of Roderick Mackenzie.  I can't imagine anything more beautiful.  { Okay, so what is the survival value of this image?  I have no idea :)  But I like it in a very deep way. }  After you're done checking this out, click through the links at the top to Roderick's other 360o images, very cool.


Ceci n'est pas Mimi

Monday,  05/26/03  10:40 AM

Ceci n'est pas Mimi
Ceci n'est pas Mimi

Ceci n'est pas une pipe
Ceci n'est pas Magritte

The Human Condition
The Human Condition
(click for larger view)

I saw an interesting post on Marc Cantor's site: a picture of his daughter Mimi, next to a computer which has a picture of a computer, which has a picture of Mimi.  Marc asks "Which Reality is Real?"

Of course this is a trick - the answer is "none of the above"!  The outermost reality is just a web page with a photograph.  In fact, as you're viewing this right now you have - a web page with a photograph of his web page with a photograph!  Which reality is real, indeed?

This type of confusion of levels was the specialty of René Magritte, one of my very favorite artists.  His most famous work is a simple painting of a pipe, with the caption "ceci n'est pas une pipe" which means "this is not a pipe".  At one level you are tempted to say "wait a minute, that is a pipe!", but then you realize "oh, it isn't a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe!".  Of course this is neither a pipe nor a painting, this is a web page with a photograph of a painting of a pipe.

Lest you think Magritte was only into "thought art", you should check out some of his other work; it is visually amazing as well as thought-provoking.  You can Google for other examples of his work on the 'net. 

My personal favorite is "The Human Condition", shown below at right.  Magritte insisted that this piece be displayed unframed, giving the illusion of a "real" window with a painting on an easel in front of it.  The image on the painting appears to be identical to the view through the window, but is it?  After staring at this for a bit, you may feel "aha, I get it; Magritte is saying we are like a canvas, and the 'real' world is painted onto it by our senses."  Then you realize, "hey, this work of art is painting itself onto my brain."  Still later you realize "this work of art has a message, and its message is being painted onto my brain."  Cool.

This same confusion of levels is at the core of the Matrix movies - a reality which is a simulation within an outer reality.  At the end of the Matrix Reloaded we understand suddenly that the outer reality is also a simulation (!) nested inside a reality another level out.  I wouldn't be surprised if the conclusion in the Matrix Revolutions is that all reality is a series of nested realities, with no "outermost" level.

I urge all of you to take a screenshot of this page, and post it on your website.  Then you'll have a page with a photograph of a page with a photograph of a page with a photograph...  For even more fun, view it through a mirror.  Which Reality is Real, indeed!


Monday,  05/26/03  05:30 PM

Old GloryMemorial Day, 2003.  Today we honor all those who gave their lives defending America and in the pursuit of freedom and liberty everywhere.  Particularly poignant this year, with the recent actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I am personally am very grateful and proud of all the men and women in our armed forces, and especially those who've given their lives for our lifestyle.  Thank you all.

CNN: Canada, Taiwan wrestle with SARS.  I haven't been reporting SARS news - I guess I don't feel I add much to what's already out there - but this continues to be a worry.  The only real weapon we appear to have in this battle is quarantine; I was encouraged by the apparent progress in Beijing (still, with China you just don't know the real story), but Toronto and Taipei continue to report new cases daily.  The global death toll now stands at a little over 700.

I dislike SUVs.  I think they're ugly.  I do understand I'm in the minority on this (check out any nearby mall parking lot), and if you own an SUV rest assured this isn't personal; I would staunchly defend your right to purchase an ugly vehicle.  Okay, got that out of the way.

Although I'm not an SUV fan, I do think Arianna Huffington's Detroit Project is ridiculous ("drive an SUV, fund a terrorist").  Tim Blair points to a great column by Csaba Csere in Car and Driver which skewers the logic behind this in ten different ways.

Razib has posted a nice review of Matt Ridley's new book Nature via Nurture.  Overall he had a lukewarm reaction, perhaps because Matt tends to objectively review issues rather than injecting his own opinions.  Sounds like a nice read, I'll have to check it out.

Jeremy Zawodny says PageRank is Dead.  "PageRank stopped working really well when people began to understand how PageRank worked."  Hmmm...  The Heisenberg-ness of this is appealing, but I don't think many people have changed their linking behavior to optimize for Google.  Sure, you read about Google bombs but they're isolated incidents.  Now that Google is making serious money with their text advertising there may be pressure for them to do things differently, but they seem to be maintaining their integrity.  Recently there was a flurry of discussion about Google and blogs (I joined it myself).  The bottom line was that Google was concerned that blogs might be disproportionately weighted in their search rankings and they might take corrective action.  This wasn't to punish blogs, it was to optimized search results.  Part of the problem is that "authoritative" sources like newspapers often hide their archives behind a paywall, and/or don't link through their archives, so they are effectively under-weighting themselves.  A while back I suggested a mechanism for weighting links explicitly; this didn't seem to attract much interest (!).  However Google continues to weight links implicitly by their source, which is self-correcting.  I guess I disagree with Jeremy; there are challenges posed by Google's success (they are no longer merely an observer, they are a major influence), but the fundamental technique of using links to categorize web pages is still valid.

I've been waiting to see if Dave Winer replies to Evan Williams' comments on the blogger API.  He noted that he had to read it carefully, but so far he's withheld comment.  This matters because Evan and Dave are the authors of the two weblog APIs (blogger and metaWeblog).  It sure would be nice if there was only one, and/or if they were compatible.  Particularly if you were, say, building a facility to post email messages to blogs :)


Echo the Gecko

Monday,  05/26/03  09:24 PM

Echo the Gecko
Echo the Gecko
(click for larger pic)

We have a new member of our household, please welcome "Echo"!  She is a baby Leopard Gecko and we think she is pretty darn cute.  Seems like a friendly little thing, too...

Right now she is banded - almost like a snake - but when she's older she'll have spots like a leopard.

Unfortunately geckos eat live crickets - four per day - so when you take on a gecko as a pet, you are also taking on a bunch of crickets and they are not cute.  Also they are not silent.  Amazingly both Alex (9) and Megan (6) grabbed a cricket and fed Echo.  Our cat Reggie is interested in both Echo and the crickets, so we have our hands full keeping nature at bay.  Stay tuned.


Tuesday,  05/27/03  09:19 PM

SARS Cases Per has a great new feature - a graph showing the number of new SARS cases each day.  This is probably the best metric for monitoring our progress.  The image at right is "live" to their site; refresh to get the latest version.  Clicking the image takes you to who are providing the data.

SARS emoticonsSign of the times - SARS emoticons for the Chinese version of MS Messenger.  [ via Boing Boing ]  It is so amazing how this infection has just permeated society in China so quickly.  Boing Boing has been doing a series on "SARS digital folk art", and it is fascinating.  Check it out...

BusinessWeek has a special report: Five Hurdles for Biotech.  Hurdle #1 is Decode the Causes of Diseases.  Interesting reading...  { A big part of this is Pathology.  Hey, we ought to automate pathology! }

Interesting analysis on Wired: Let Someone Else Do It, about Sony's and Universal's decision to sell their Pressplay service to Roxio (acquirer of the Napster brand).  "We are in the content business. We don't have to own the highway necessarily unless it is strategic to do so."  This makes sense to me.  Apple has shown the way - there is a market for a well-designed online music store.  The problem Roxio will have is whether the store will have only Sony and Universal music, limiting its appeal.

In other online music news, Apple tunes iTunes.  Cory Doctorow is not amused.  Basically there is a new release which restricts iTunes file sharing to a local network.  This doesn't seem horrible to me, Cory.  True, it was a capability which has been taken away, but this was never the service's selling point.  By preventing this sort of file sharing Apple stays on the side of big music, and without those relationships and all that music, the iTunes store would lose its appeal.

And finally, Real is dropping MusicNet to promote Rhapsody, which it bought from  They also dropped their prices; burning a track now costs $.79.  Yippee, competition!  MusicNet was EMI, TimeWarner, and Bertlesmann's lame counterpoint to Pressplay; each of these services only had the half of the music the other did not.

Slashdot reports Kazaa is on track to become the most-downloaded program ever, surpassing ICQ.  It has been downloaded over 220M times - amazing!  CNet notes File Swapping Shifts Up a Gear, and discusses eDonkey and BitTorrent, two newer P2P file sharing services.  ZDNet reports ISPs reel from P2P bandwidth hogs, and estimates 60% of 'net traffic is file sharing.  That doesn't seem hard to believe.  Apparently the Matrix Reloaded is available online, less than two weeks after the film was released.

Scoble: "All of you who are asking 'Is IE dead?' are asking the wrong question."  So what's the right question?  I have no inside information, but let's consider.  If 'Is IE dead?' is the wrong question, that means the answer doesn't matter.  The answers could be "yes" and "no".  If "yes" doesn't matter, that means IE is no longer the way you surf the Internet.  If "no" doesn't matter, it means all the functionality of IE is available elsewhere.  These answers mean something is taking IE's place.  Perhaps MS went ahead and built IE into Longhorn?  But would that be different?  There is already an ActiveX control with IE's functionality which can be plugged into any application.  IE is already in the desktop (the under-used but reasonably cool "active desktop").  IE already has access to the .NET CLR.  IE can already run ActiveX controls.  One could imagine a little deeper integration - maybe a URL input line on the taskbar.  Maybe the entire OS GUI is really just a browser window, with all OS "views" being web pages.  Stay tuned.

[ Later: Scoble posts an update, but does not answer the question... ]


Wednesday,  05/28/03  11:12 PM

An old post I finally made time to read: Tim Bray ponders The Death of Scholarship.  Tim makes the point that Googling for something gives you a million links to a millions sources, very few of which are authoritative or represent "scholarly work".  As compared to searching an encyclopedia or dictionary, where 100% of the entries have been reviewed and proofed.  While this is an interesting point, I daresay scholarship is a gradient rather than a black-and-white distinction.  Very often "reviewed and proofed" was probably one expert's opinion reviewed by another expert, which is pretty close to what you get on the 'net.  At least if someone posts something on a blog which is wrong, they'll get flamed, but if there's an error in a published encyclopedia it will be there forever.  Interesting and thought provoking...

World's Largest FlowerThe world record for the largest flower has been broken.  This baby is nine feet tall.  Oh, and it smells like rotting flesh, hence the plant's nickname "the corpse flower".

Marc Cantor: Trinity hacks into the power grid:

All was going well, until Trinity needed to do some hacking," Fyodor wrote to CNET in an e-mail interview. "This always ruins movies for me, as they almost always pass off ridiculous 3D animated eye-candy scenes as hacking.  But then Trinity pulled out my Nmap program and did it right!  I was so shocked that I almost did the 'r00t dance' right there in the theater!"

Google has announced they're sponsoring the U.S. Puzzle Championship, "a national online competition to identify America's most logical minds".  They also include a few puzzles of their own - check it out.  (Shades of Moving Mount Fuji...)

At the suggestion of Andrew Anker, chief blogger of VentureBlog, I'm reading Moneyball - a book by Michael Lewis about how the Oakland A's have rethought baseball and become successful despite having 1/4 the budget of the New York Yankees.  This is a great book.  Even if you don't like baseball you'll enjoy it for the people and the concepts, and if you're a baseball fan you should Amazon it immediately.

Dave Winer is running a survey: Will blogs wipe out professional journalists?  Er, no.  He did the same survey a year ago.

Financial Times: The Real Fallout from China's Chernobyl.

Wired: Feds Race to Make SARS Vaccine.

Caerdroia is my favorite new blog from the Carnival; the selected post discusses IP"You see, 'intellectual property' doesn't exist: it's propaganda."  Yep.

Silflay Hraka ponders: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Finally, we bring you today's latest fad: Dinner in the Dark.  Not dark as in romantic, dark as in night-vision goggles.  I am not making this up.


the $21 question

Thursday,  05/29/03  11:34 AM

A few days ago I reviewed How Would You Move Mount Fuji, a great new book about the logic puzzles often used in technical interviews.  I received a lot of feedback - thanks! - and some interesting meta-reviews (reviews of my review).  My favorite meta-review was by Chris Lightfoot.  He was pretty critical - as he put it "such pontifications irk me" - but the reason I liked it was that he gave a different and better answer to the $21 question.

You may remember this question goes as follows:

Mike and Todd have $21 between them.  Mike has $20 more than Todd.  How much does each have (you can't use fractions in the answer)?

I called this the worst question in the book, based on the fact that it has no answer.  I went on to say:

Apparently sometimes people ask questions which have no answer to see how candidates react.  This might be helpful in some situations (if you're hiring for a company with a confrontational culture!), but I would never use it; I don't like what it says about me and my company, and I can't imagine what it would say about the candidate, either.

So it turns out that this question does have an answer!  Chris writes:

What does this illustrate?  That Ole apparently doesn't know that dollars are divided up into cents:

m = t + 2000¢
m + t = 2100¢


m = 2050¢
t = 50¢

Excellent!  When I read this question in the book it was described as having no answer, and it never occurred to me that the book was wrong, and that this question really does have an answer.  I believe whoever first posed this question was looking for Chris' answer; this is a classic "thinking out of the box" test.  Any candidate is going to do the algebra and conclude that there is no integer solution in dollars.  Will they then consider shifting units to cents?  Very interesting.

I don't know what my reaction would have been if the question had been posed as answerable.  Would I have thought to give the answer in cents?  Don't know.  But when the book stated that the question was not answerable, I took their word for it.  Bad Ole.

Since I'm following up on the review, I wanted to mention a couple of other puzzles which were emailed to me as great questions:

The Bad King.  I had encountered some version of this before, and I like it.  I knew the form of the answer from having seen it before.  This question does have an answer and there is no trick - just logical thinking.  Click through if you want to try it.

The Switches Puzzle.  I have not figured this one out yet - it seems like it requires a trick, but according to the techInterview rating scheme the "aha" factor is low, implying that it doesn't.  Check it out if you're interested - if I can figure it out, I'll post a solution.

[ Later - I figured it out!  Please see The Two Switches for the solution. ]

In the meantime let me know if you encounter other interesting puzzles...  I'm practicing for the Worlds :)


The $21 Question

Thursday,  05/29/03  11:34 AM

A few days ago I reviewed How Would You Move Mount Fuji, a great new book about the logic puzzles often used in technical interviews.  I received a lot of feedback - thanks! - and some interesting meta-reviews (reviews of my review).  My favorite meta-review was by Chris Lightfoot.  He was pretty critical - as he put it "such pontifications irk me" - but the reason I liked it was that he gave a different and better answer to the $21 question.

You may remember this question goes as follows:

Mike and Todd have $21 between them.  Mike has $20 more than Todd.  How much does each have (you can't use fractions in the answer)?

I called this the worst question in the book, based on the fact that it has no answer.  I went on to say:

Apparently sometimes people ask questions which have no answer to see how candidates react.  This might be helpful in some situations (if you're hiring for a company with a confrontational culture!), but I would never use it; I don't like what it says about me and my company, and I can't imagine what it would say about the candidate, either.

So it turns out that this question does have an answer!  Chris writes:

What does this illustrate?  That Ole apparently doesn't know that dollars are divided up into cents:

m = t + 2000¢
m + t = 2100¢


m = 2050¢
t = 50¢

Excellent!  When I read this question in the book it was described as having no answer, and it never occurred to me that the book was wrong, and that this question really does have an answer.  I believe whoever first posed this question was looking for Chris' answer; this is a classic "thinking out of the box" test.  Any candidate is going to do the algebra and conclude that there is no integer solution in dollars.  Will they then consider shifting units to cents?  Very interesting.

I don't know what my reaction would have been if the question had been posed as answerable.  Would I have thought to give the answer in cents?  Don't know.  But when the book stated that the question was not answerable, I took their word for it.  Bad Ole.

Since I'm following up on the review, I wanted to mention a couple of other puzzles which were emailed to me as great questions:

The Bad King.  I had encountered some version of this before, and I like it.  I knew the form of the answer from having seen it before.  This question does have an answer and there is no trick - just logical thinking.  Click through if you want to try it.

The Switches Puzzle.  I have not figured this one out yet - it seems like it requires a trick, but according to the techInterview rating scheme the "aha" factor is low, implying that it doesn't.  Check it out if you're interested - if I can figure it out, I'll post a solution.

[ Later - I figured it out!  Please see The Two Switches for the solution. ]

In the meantime let me know if you encounter other interesting puzzles...  I'm practicing for the Worlds :)


The Two Switches

Friday,  05/30/03  07:17 AM

I solved it!  And it is great!!  The infamous "two switches" puzzle does have a solution, and it isn't a trick; it is a pure logic puzzle.  Actually it is a great logic puzzle, because after you work out the solution, you discover a little teeny crummy thing that makes the solution not the solution, and then you have to figure out a way around it.  Excellent.

So, first, here's the puzzle [ courtesy of techInterview ]:

The warden meets with 23 new prisoners when they arrive.  He tells them, "You may meet today and plan a strategy.  But after today, you will be in isolated cells and will have no communication with one another.

"In the prison is a switch room, which contains two light switches labeled A and B, each of which can be in either the 'on' or the 'off' position. I am not telling you their present positions.  The switches are not connected to anything.

"After today, from time to time whenever I feel so inclined, I will select one prisoner at random and escort him to the switch room.  This prisoner will select one of the two switches and reverse its position.  He must move one, but only one of the switches.  He can't move both but he can't move none either.  Then he'll be led back to his cell.

"No one else will enter the switch room until I lead the next prisoner there, and he'll be instructed to do the same thing.  I'm going to choose prisoners at random.  I may choose the same guy three times in a row, or I may jump around and come back.

"But, given enough time, everyone will eventually visit the switch room as many times as everyone else. At any time anyone of you may declare to me, 'we have all visited the switch room' and be 100% sure.

"If it is true, then you will all be set free.  If it is false, and somebody has not yet visited the switch room, you will be fed to the alligators."

What is the strategy they come up with so that they can be free?

I actually think this puzzle is too hard to give in a technical interview.  Perhaps many of you are thinking "what's he talking about, that puzzle was trivial" (!)  But for me this was a three-bike-ride puzzle, and although some candidates might really enjoy puzzling it out, to expect them to figure it out in fifteen minutes is unrealistic.  (As we noted before in Moving Mount Fuji, you want to use puzzles which all good candidates can solve, so as to detect bad candidates.)

Okay, on to the solution.  First let me give the "correct except for a little teeny crummy thing" solution:

The Almost Right solution

The prisoners get together and nominate one prisoner as the "leader".  All the other prisoners are equivalent.  The leader is going to count how many different prisoners have visited the switch room.  When the count equals the number of prisoners, he goes to the warden and says "all the prisoners have visited", and everyone goes free.  Here's the strategy for the followers and the leader:

Visit by a follower:

  • If switch A is on, toggle switch B.
  • If switch A is off and you have not previously toggled switch A, toggle it on, otherwise toggle switch B.
  • If switch A is off and you have previously toggled switch A, toggle switch B.

Visit by the leader:

  • If switch A is off, toggle switch B.
  • If switch A is on, toggle it to off.  Increment the count of prisoners.

That's it!  Each prisoner will toggle switch A on exactly once.  Only the leader can toggle switch A off, and he will count each time he does so.  Each time switch A is on it means a different prisoner has toggled it.  When the count equals the number of prisoners, you're done!

This works because only the leader turns switch A off.  Only the followers turn switch A on, and they only do it once each.  The key is that each prisoner can remember whether they've previously toggled switch A.  Each time the leader turns switch A off, one more new follower has visited.

Note that the switch room basically has one state, held by switch A.  The only purpose of switch B is to give each prisoner something to toggle if they don't want to change the state of switch A.

Make sure you understand my convoluted explanation before going on.  Hopefully you will have clear that the switch room holds one state, and how the leader and the followers interact.

The problem with the Almost Right solution

A key complication in the puzzle is that the initial state is not known.  If the initial state were known - let's say the switches were both off - then there would not be a problem, and we'd be done.  But this complication actually means the strategy outlined above won't work exactly right.  Here's why.  The initial state of switch A can be either off or on.  If switch A is off, there is no problem.  If a follower visits first, they'll toggle switch A on, and when the leader visits, he'll toggle switch A to off and the count will be one.  If the leader visits first he'll do nothing since switch A is already off.  All will be cool.  But if the initial state of switch A is on, then there's a problem.  Nothing will happen until the leader visits, and he'll toggle switch A off and set the count to one.  But - his count will be off by one!  The leader cannot tell the difference between 'initial state off, one follower visited' and 'initial state on, zero followers visited'.  This matters because if the leader is off by one, he'll either wait forever for a last follower who doesn't exist (prisoners remain prisoners), or he'll tell the warden everyone has visited when one prisoner still hasn't (prisoners fed to alligators).  So - what to do?

The crux of the complication is that the leader can't know whether the first "switch A on" was created by a follower.  So the solution has to be - nobody can do anything until the leader has visited at least once.

The Right solution

The prisoners get together and nominate one prisoner as the "leader".  All the other prisoners are equivalent.  The leader is going to count how many different prisoners have visited the switch room.  When the count equals the number of prisoners, he goes to the warden and says "all the prisoners have visited", and everyone goes free.  Here's the strategy for the leader and the followers:

Visit by a follower:

  • If switch A is on, toggle switch B.
  • If switch A is off and you have not previously toggled switch A, and you have previously seen switch A on, toggle it on, otherwise toggle switch B.
  • If switch A is off and you have previously toggled switch A, toggle switch B.

Visit by the leader:

  • If switch A is off, toggle it on
  • If switch A is on, toggle it off.  If you did not turn switch A on during your previous visit, increment the count of prisoners.

The additions to the strategy are italicized.  Each follower must remember two things, 1) whether they've seen switch A on during any previous visit, and 2) whether they've previously toggled switch A.  They must have seen switch A on before toggling it on themselves, and they will only toggle it on once.  The leader must remember two things also, 1) whether he toggled switch A on during his previous visit, and 2) the current count of followers who have toggled switch A.

To see how this handles the initial state complication, let's consider the possibilities.  If the initial state of switch A is off, then nothing will happen until the leader visits, because no follower will have previously seen an on state.  If the initial state of switch A is on, then again nothing will happen until the leader visits, because only he can turn switch A off.  Since nothing happens until the leader visits, the initial state ambiguity is settled; the leader can be sure that the state of switch A has not been disturbed since the start.

So there you have it - a terrific logic puzzle, with a depth that is belied by the apparent simplicity of the situation.  Note that the solution would be the same no matter how many prisoners there were - I don't know if asking the question with 1000 prisoners or n prisoners would have made it easier.  (Somehow the number 23 suggests a specific value, doesn't it?)



Saturday,  05/31/03  10:25 AM

Bigwig notes iTunes music store sales are declining: it took 7 days to sell the first million, 9 for the second million, and 14 for the third.  Will there be an asymptote or will sales decline forever?  There was probably a "cool, check this out" effect fueled by the positive publicity the store's opening received; over time it will settle in.  The important thing is that a viable alternative to free has been established.

CNet considers whether it might be Amazon vs. Apple in music downloads...

If you enjoy Steve Jobs (I do, I do!) then check out Denise Howell's unofficial transcript of an interview by Walt Mossberg.  "[at Apple] there are no plans to make a tablet.  It turns out people want keyboards.  When Apple first started out, "People couldn't type.  We realized: Death would eventually take care of this."  I love it - read it all...

Scoble discovers two 70-year olds trying to install a printer under Windows XP.  "Just another reminder that our products are too freaking hard to use."  You have to give Robert credit, he is honest.  This is why I recommend a Mac to anyone who "isn't technical"; you plug in the printer, and it works.

Smith ChartRemember graph paper?  How cool it is, and how useful?  Well now you can make your own, with the Graph Paper Printer.  Excellent.  [ via Ned Batchelder ]

Alan MacCormack ponders The True Costs of Software.  Or how "free" software like Linux isn't really free.

You know how you can find anything on eBay?  Well, how about this: A Genuine Soviet Sputnik!  Current bid is $25,000.  But warning, these things don't hold their value; it cost more than that new :)

Speaking of communist nations with intentions of landing on the moon: former senator Bob Walker thinks the Chinese are next - within four years!

Dave Winer summarizes:  "Microsoft, AOL settle browser suit.  MS pays AOL $750 million. Web developers get $0. Web users get a buggy browser.  Huh?"

CNet wonders Is this the end of Netscape?

Another hardware vendor turned software company bites the dust: 3DO files for bankruptcy.  Founder Trip Hawkins was a media darling in the early 1990s with this company, which proved there is no market for $700 video game machines, despite a pre-revenue IPO which saw the company's market cap exceed $5B.  Whew.

A musical version of The Lord of the Rings is being planned to open in London, in 2005.  "This will be like nothing the West End has ever seen before."  I am not making this up.


Found Nemo

Saturday,  05/31/03  02:05 PM

Finding NemoShirley and I took four kids to see Finding Nemo this morning.  Wow.  A great movie for any age.  The great thing about Pixar movies is that the technology is so great, you ignore it; as with Toy Story and Bug's Life and Monsters Inc., the story is the thing.  Excellent!

The Salt Lake Tribune considers Playing at Pixar.


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Correlation vs. Causality
The Tyranny of Email
Unnatural Selection
Aperio's Mission = Automating Pathology
On Blame
Try, or Try Not
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Moving Mount Fuji The Nest Rock 'n Roll
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Are You a Bright?
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visiting Titan
unintelligent design
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estimating in meatspace
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On the Persistence of Bad Design...
Texas chili cookoff
almost famous design and stochastic debugging
may I take your order?
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how did I get here (Mt.Whitney)?
the Law of Significance
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