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Preview: Geeking with Greg

Geeking with Greg





Updated: 2016-10-01T12:39:15.795-07:00

 



More quick links

2016-08-28T09:10:55.608-07:00

A tightly curated list of what has caught my attention lately: New Yorker on AI: "A lot of what people are calling 'artificial intelligence' is really data analytics -- in other words, business as usual. If the hype leaves you asking 'What is A.I., really?,' don’t worry, you're not alone .... Intelligent software helps us interact and deal with the ... [information] onslaught ... winnowing an increasing number of inputs and options in a way that humans can’t manage without a helping hand .... A set of technologies that try to imitate or augment human intelligence .... [But] we are a long way from creating virtual human beings ... In the meantime, we're going to have to deal with the hyperbole surrounding A.I." ([1]) Tim O'Reilly: "Humans are increasingly going to be interacting with devices that are able to listen to us and talk back .... [Alexa] demonstrates that conversational interfaces can work, if they are designed right .... Smaller domains where you can deliver satisfying results, and within those domains, spend a lot of time thinking through the 'fit and finish' so that interfaces are intuitive, interactions are complete, and that what most people try to do 'just works'." ([1]) Netflix: "We think the combined effect of personalization and recommendations save us more than $1B per year" ([1] [2] [3]) "The main reasons cited for using ad blockers include avoiding disruptive ads (69%), ads that slow down their browsing experience (58%) and security / malware risks (56%). Privacy wasn’t the top answer. So Facebook thinks if its can make its ads non-interruptive, fast, [useful,] and secure, people won’t mind." ([1] [2]) According to the NYT, Uber lost $1.2B on $2.1B in revenue in H1 2016 ([1] [2]) "Amazon reaches new high of 268,900 employees — skyrocketing 47% in just one year" ([1]) Amazon's going hard for Netflix on their key vulnerability, strength of the catalog ([1]) Great example of how Bezos sees failure as just a step toward success, following up on their $170M loss from an expensive Amazon Fire Phone with another (and I think very promising) attempt using existing cheap phones ([1] [2]) Talks from ScaledML 2016, including Jeff Dean, Qi Lu, Ilya Sutskever, and more ([1] [2]) Great paper on the data pipelines at Facebook and some of their design tradeoffs ([1]) Good article on Facebook's approach to research, not separate from engineering, not part of engineering, but just open ([1] [2]) Great article in ACM Queue on Amazon's microservices, which allows for "permissionless innovation" and has many benefits for testing, deployment, debugging, and reliability ([1] [2]) Nice example of fine-grained control of data center power and cooling using machine learning to save electricity ([1]) Precision agriculture using GPS, self-driving tractors, and crop and nutrient sensors ([1]) Pew Internet study of Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), lots of remarkable details, including that most workers are making less than $5/hour, almost all less than $8/hour ([1]) "The line between outright deception and poor user design is often hard to distinguish" ([1]) "[The] many confusing design decisions made us wonder if projects were assembled entirely from poor stackoverflow posts" ([1] [2]) Amusing story of what happens when a geolocation is missing ([1]) On education: "A feeling of hopefulness actually leads us to try harder and persist longer -- but only if it is paired with practical plans for achieving our goals, and specific, concrete actions we’ll take when and if (usually when) our original plans don’t work out as expected." ([1]) On management: "We have to give them the space to fail in the short term so they can succeed and grow in the long term ... There is that magical moment when we delegate and allow an emerging leader to grow into their new responsibilities, and they end up being way better at it than we ever were. That’s real management success." ([1] [2]) On teams: "The best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that al[...]



Quick links

2016-06-02T19:39:28.426-07:00

A tightly curated list of what I enjoyed in the news recently: Bezos: "Every single important thing we’ve done has taken a lot of risk, risk-taking, perseverance, guts, and some have worked out. Most of them have not." ([1]) Bezos: "You need to select people who tend to be dissatisfied ... As they go about their daily experiences, they notice that little things are broken in the world and they want to fix them. Inventors have a divine discontent." ([1]) Page: "Is it going to affect everyone in the world? Very few ... think this way." ([1]) "More than anything else, the rise of the bots signals the death of the mobile app ... The whole app thing didn't really work out." ([1] [2]) "As it turns out, the mundanity of our regular lives is the most captivating thing we could share with one another" ([1]) "This is the most demonically clever computer security attack I've seen in years ... insert a nearly undetectable backdoor into the chips themselves" ([1]) "Most Android vulnerabilities don't get patched. It's not Google's fault. It releases the patches, but the phone carriers don't push them down to their smartphone users ... This is a long-existing market failure." ([1]) "It’s not like iPhones have somehow gotten worse. Other phones, though? They’ve gotten a whole lot better. And they’re cheap." ([1]) "Google, with its tech chops and its control over digital ad delivery, is positioned to do what individual publishers and their associations can’t do on their own, though, by requiring that ads are not obtrusive or annoying — a main reason people choose to block ads." ([1]) "How quickly cars can learn to do the really hard parts of driving ... navigate congested cities in the pouring rain where humans, pets and rodents run into the road" ([1] [2] [3]) "With so many advances in machine learning recently, it’s not unreasonable to ask: why aren’t my recommendations perfect by now?" ([1]) "Developers’ speed mattered ... only to the extent that we made effective product design choices ... It didn’t matter how fast they were moving if they were moving in the wrong direction." ([1]) "Building and growing startups may appear glamorous from the outside ... It is anything but that from the inside." ([1]) "% of pitches for bots and/or AI companies approaching 100%" ([1]) "Tech firms are plundering departments of robotics and machine learning ... for the highest-flying faculty and students, luring them with big salaries ... The field was largely ignored and underfunded during the 'AI winter' of the 1980s and 1990s, when fashionable approaches to AI failed to match their early promise." ([1]) The FizzBuzz Tensorflow interview "will probably only make sense to people who have gone through really terrible CS interview processes" ([1] [2]) Remarkable, deep networks trained on artistic style, then used to apply those styles to video ([1]) A good summary of the state-of-the-art in deep learning ([1]) "There are limits to the predictive abilities of even tremendously superior intelligence (due to partial observability, chaotic behavior, or sheer randomness)" ([1] [2]) SMBC comic: "Once you realize there is no hope, you can relax and just enjoy the progress in machine learning." ([1]) My favorite old T-shirt from Amazon.com, Earth's Biggest Bookstore ([1]) [...]



Code Monster from Crunchzilla is now open source

2016-05-14T09:51:52.145-07:00

Code Monster from Crunchzilla is now open source, free to use and modify.

Code Monster is a tutorial that has been used by hundreds of thousands of children around the world to learn a little about programming. It's a series of short lessons where each lesson involves reading and modifying a small amount of code. Changes to the code show up instantly, students learning by example and by doing.

The lessons content for Code Monster from Crunchzilla is in a JSON file that can be modified fairly easily to create your own content. By open sourcing Code Monster from Crunchzilla, I hope three things might happen:
  1. Translations. Taking the current content and translating into languages other than English for use in more classrooms around the world.

  2. New lessons and new content. By adding new messages and example code to the JSON lessons file, new tutorials could be created for teaching programming games, working through puzzles or math problems, or perhaps a more traditional computer science curriculum aligned with a particular lesson plan.

  3. Entirely new tutorials. Some ideas and techniques used by Code Monster, such as how Code Monster provides informative error messages, how it does live code, or how it avoids infinite loops in students' code, might be useful for others creating web-based coding environments.
Code Monster from Crunchzilla has been used in computer labs and classrooms around the world. One of the most common requests is translations into languages other than English. Now that the code is open source, I hope that makes it easier for translated and modified versions to get in front of even more children.

If you use the code for anything that helps children learn computer programming, I'd love to hear about it (please post a comment here or e-mail me at greg@crunchzilla.com).(image)



Quick links

2016-04-02T12:24:22.963-07:00

What has caught my attention lately: "We simply don't know how to securely engineer anything but the simplest of systems" ([1]) Impressive at their scale: "Facebook ... releases software ... three times a day" and makes configuration changes "thousands of times a day... every single engineer can make live configuration changes." ([1]) Pew Research report on global internet and smartphone usage ([1]) Cute idea for telepresence: "We propose projecting [2D] virtual copies of people directly onto (potentially irregular) surfaces in the physical environment" ([1]) For those of us tracking virtual reality, a detailed review of the Oculus Rift ([1]), a review of Hololens ([2]), and a fun TED talk motivating augmented and virtual reality ([3]) For disk to be the new tape "custom disk designs uniquely targeting cold storage" are required that are "much larger, slower, more power efficient and less expensive." ([1]) Related, Google seeks new disk designs ([2]) Lessons from building AWS, including automate everything and favor primitives over frameworks ([1]) In the AWS service terms: "However, this restriction will not apply ... [when] human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue." ([1]) Google says, "With multi-homing ... failover, recovery, and dealing with inconsistency ... are solved by the infrastructure, so the application developer gets high availability and consistency for free and can focus instead on building their application" ([1] [2]) Remarkably successful contest: "The winning team exceeded the power density goal for the competition by a factor of 3 ... Some of us at Google didn’t think such audacious goals could be achieved." ([1])"Welcome to the Internet of Things... and its tradeoffs" ([1] [2] [3]) Netflix's catalog has dropped to 5,532 titles from 8,103 titles in about two years ([1] [2]) "The James Webb Space Telescope will be a major advance ... primary mirror will be 50 times [larger] ... eight times the resolution" ([1]) "The price of planetary insurance, it turns out, isn’t all that high." ([1] [2]) Teaching math: "In most people’s everyday lives ... what [people] do need is to be comfortable reading graphs and charts and adept at calculating simple figures in their heads ... Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs." ([1]) He's the "‘seagull of science.’ He used to fly in, squawk, crap over everything, and fly away." ([1]) Good answer to the question, "What are the most important things for building an effective engineering team?" ([1]) Related, similar advice from Amit Singh ([2] [3]) An old Amazon.com office map from early 1997 (back when Amazon only sold books, "Earth's Biggest Bookstore"). My "office" was a card table in a kitchen. ([1]) What If comic: What would happen if you tried to squeeze all the water going over Niagara Falls into a straw? It's worse than you'd think. ([1]) Xkcd comic on bots: ""Python flag: Enable three laws" ([1]) Good Xkcd comic on Celsius or Fahrenheit ([1]) SMBC comic: "Philosophy tip: Make any sentence profound by adding 'true' to it" ([1]) Dilbert comic: "No need for conversation. I know everything about you." ([1]) Comic with a Calvin and Hobbes crossover into Bloom County, brings back memories ([1]) [...]



Virtual reality hitting the mainstream: The next $100 bet

2016-03-05T16:55:20.385-08:00

Virtual reality is hot again, with dedicated hardware headsets launching from multiple manufacturers intended for general use.

The world is substantially different than the last time this happened. In particular, there's more computing power available in our smartphones than the most powerful graphics workstations had back in the 1990s. Google Cardboard and others take advantage of that, using a smartphone and little else for a quick-and-dirty virtual reality experience.

But, for a product to appeal to a broad market -- to get beyond early adopters with disposable income seeking to show something cool to friends a couple times -- it needs to survive the harsh judgement of busy people. It isn't enough for virtual reality on expensive dedicated hardware to mostly work. The experience will have to wow repeatedly at a price people like.

So, Daniel and I have another bet: "Virtual reality hardware (not counting cardboard) will not sell more than 10M units/year worldwide before March 2019." I'm saying it won't. Daniel says it will. Loser donates $100 to the winner's choice of charity.

Daniel already posted his side of the bet. In brief, he thinks three years will be enough time for someone to get it right.

I think that mainstream adoption of dedicated hardware for virtual reality requires breakthroughs in usability and price that are too difficult to achieve in the three year time frame. The experience just isn't good enough yet for it to be anything other than a toy for early adopters. Current virtual reality hardware is bulky, expensive, not fully immersive, and not addictive or compelling beyond the initial wow. I expect even the next generation will just be a niche market (low million units per year) until we see major developments on price, form factor, and quality of the experience.

There are several wild cards here. For example, it is possible that much cheaper units can be made to work. It's possible that someone discovers very carefully chosen environments and software tricks fool the brain into fully accepting the virtual reality, especially for gaming, increasing the appeal and making it a must-have experience for a lot of people. As unsavory as it is, pornography is often a wild card with new technology, potentially driving adoption in ways that can determine winners and losers. A breakthrough in display (such as retinal displays) might allow virtual reality hardware that is much cheaper and lighter. Business use is another unknown where virtual reality could provide a large cost savings over physical presence. I do think there are many ways in which I could lose this bet.

Like Daniel, I'll add some constraints to make my side of the bet even harder. I'd be surprised if dedicated virtual reality hardware sells more than 10M total over all three years. I'd also be surprised if virtual reality using smartphones (like Google Cardboard) goes beyond a toy, so, is used regularly by tens of millions for gaming, education, or virtual tourism.

And, like Daniel, I expect virtual reality to be big eventually, am frustrated by our current computing limitations, and think we should work to have much better from our computing devices today.(image)



Tablets replacing PCs: Resolving the $100 bet

2016-03-05T19:19:41.751-08:00

In 2012, Professor Daniel Lemire and I bet $100 over the question of whether tablets would replace PCs.

Specifically, the bet was, "In some quarter of 2015, the unit sales of tablets will be at least twice the unit sales of traditional PCs, in the USA." Loser donates $100 USD to the charity of the winner's choice.

It's 2016, and tablet sales went far higher than I ever expected, approaching PC sales, roughly 60M/year units for both tablets and PCs in the US. But tablet sales seem to have peaked, with Q4 2015 unit sales worldwide actually 14% lower than the previous year, which is worse than the 8% decline in PC sales.

There are other surprises. One of my concerns was that a very cheap tablet would dominate the market, and Amazon did come out with a $50 tablet that got relatively good reviews and nearly tripled Amazon's market share on tablets. There hasn't been enough time yet to see what happens with very cheap tablets, but tablets this cheap are a different category than the tablets that were around in 2012.

Another concern at the time was hybrid tablets, so tablets with detachable keyboards that function a lot like laptops, and whether they'd blur the line between PC and tablet. Hybrid tablets have done very well -- a major category in tablets -- and look likely to continue to grow over time.

The last concern at the time was whether tablets could thrive despite the pressure from increasingly larger and more powerful mobile phones. That seems to have been the biggest issue. Phablets are getting as large as early tablets, and tablets that try to be much bigger than a smartphone proved too unwieldy and sold poorly. After all, who needs a tablet when you've got a mobile that's almost as large?

The broader question in the bet was whether people would stop using PCs. PC sales have been in decline, though the pace of that decline has slowed recently. What seems to be happening is that people are continuing to use multiple devices, which was a visible trend back in 2012.

A phone is great when you want to do something quickly on the run. A bigger screen is good when you need to do a lot of reading. A keyboard, mouse, and large screen become useful when you're producing instead of consuming. If you need to do all of these, there's no reason to only have a phone, only a tablet, or only a PC. Instead, people often have all three and more.

Even though I technically won this bet, I want to congratulate Daniel Lemire on this getting much closer than I ever expected. I also admire the bravery he had to take the bet, especially with such favorable terms, and appreciate what I learned from this. The terms were that the loser donate $100 to the charity of the winner's choice, and I'd like to match the donation. Daniel and I will both be donating $100 to the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia.

Update: Daniel's post is up: "Lost my bet: the PC isn't dead... yet".(image)



Quick links

2016-01-17T13:01:33.120-08:00

What caught my attention recently: "Big ideas emerge from spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs .... As people dredge the unknown, they are engaging in a highly creative act .... the habits that transform a mistake into a breakthrough" ([1]) Lots of details on recommendations, personalization, and experimentation at Netflix in a new ACM paper ([1]) Fun and interesting Slate article on how Facebook selects posts for the news feed ([1]) New paper claims the filter bubble for news is much stronger in what people self-select and on social media than in search and recommendations ([1]) "Bayesian program learning (BPL) framework, capable of learning a large class of visual concepts from just a single example and generalizing in ways that are mostly indistinguishable from people" ([1] [2] [3]) NIPS 2015 paper on problems that accumulate in machine learning systems, such as dependencies between features, dependencies between models that build off each other, and complicated and fragile data preprocessing ([1]) "Should they teach [self-driving] cars how to commit infractions from time to time to stay out of trouble?" ([1]) Wal-mart is doing poorly against Amazon, which is surprising, I think ([1]) Good article on product management. I particularly like the points that most products fail (so you should expect to experiment, adapt, and iterate) and that a good product is about experiences not features ([1]) "People keep mentioning how different things are to the period just before the AI winter" ([1]) "Smartwatches still have a long way to go in terms of proving their usefulness, necessity, and style" ([1]) "CYA security: given the choice between overreacting to a threat and wasting everyone's time, and underreacting and potentially losing your job, it's easy to overreact." ([1]) A new $7M XPrize for autonomous undersea drones ([1] [2]) Simulating the World in Emoji is a very fun educational simulation, similar to the Artificial Life work a while back, great for kids ([1]) From the Exploratorium Museum, a demo of how wave motion arises from swirling smaller movements in water ([1]) Dilbert comic on tech jargon ([1]) Pearls Before Swine comic on clickthrough agreements ([1]) SMBC comic: "Update 9.1.2.001.241 has been a test of your loyalty." ([1]) [...]



SwipeLingo and Javascript Notebook

2016-01-02T14:48:06.651-08:00

I've been working on a couple educational projects since Google, SwipeLingo and Javascript Notebook. SwipeLingo is a quick matching game for touchscreens. Javascript Notebook is a tool for writing coding tutorials, exercises, and examples.

I'm unable to fully finish them and get them exactly where I wanted them before starting at Microsoft. But I'm launching anyway in case they or the ideas in them are useful to others.

(image) SwipeLingo is a game-with-a-purpose, a quick matching game that is both fun and helps with memorization like flash cards do. There are example games — particularly interesting is Chinese numbers, where you learn the characters pretty quickly after starting with wild guessing — and it's also easy to create your own. I was motivated to create SwipeLingo by loving Duolingo but wanting the vocabulary memorization in it to be more fun, and also wanting to try to build a non-native touch web app game that works equally well across desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone.

(image) Javascript Notebook tries to make it easy to write and share coding tutorials, coursework, examples, exercises, and experiments. It was heavily motivated by Stanford's CS101 class and their content. Here are some examples: "Getting Started", "Introduction to Programming", "What You Can Do". It's a bit like a simple Javascript-only IPython Notebook in feel, but runs entirely in the browser, requiring no configuration or set up, just write and share. Others can modify the code, run it, and save and share their own copies.

Please let me know if take a look and have any comments or suggestions. And please tell others who might be interested about them too!(image)



Working at Microsoft

2015-12-28T19:53:41.771-08:00

I'm joining Microsoft! I'll be part of the excellent Analysis and Experimentation team, helping people learn from data. I'm excited!

I've been geeking out with big data from before data science was a thing and before being a geek ever could be considered a compliment. For two decades, I've enjoyed looking at the paths people take online, where they find success and where they become annoyed, and how changes can help more find success.

Sometimes this is prioritizing things people like and find useful. Sometimes it is changing or eliminating things that, despite the good intentions of the developers and designers, don't work for people. Sometimes it is anonymously sharing things that only some people found with others who haven't found it yet. And sometimes it is having humility about being able to guess what will work and deciding to try many things to discover what actually does work.

If you're at Microsoft, whether an old friend, a team looking to talk about recommendations, personalization, data science, and experimentation, or just looking to chat, please get in touch! I'd love to hear from you.(image)



Quick links

2015-11-30T14:44:12.589-08:00

What has caught my attention lately: Tog (of the famous Tog on Interface) says Apple has lost its way on design: "Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them." ([1] [2]) Good advice on adding features to a product: "'Great or Dead', as in, if we can't make a feature great, it should be killed off." ([1]) Great data on smartphone and tablet ownership. Sometimes it's hard to remember that only five years ago most people didn't have smartphones. ([1]) Advice for anyone thinking of doing a startup. Here's the conclusion: "So all you need is a great idea, a great team, a great product, and great execution. So easy! ;)" ([1]) Related, a Dilbert comic on the value of a startup idea ([1]) "People might think that human-level AI is close because they think AI is more magical than it actually is" ([1]) "VCs hate technical risk. They’re comfortable with market risk, but technical risk is really difficult for them to reconcile." ([1]) Google finds eliminating bad advertisements increases long-term revenue, concluding: "A focus on user satisfaction could help to reduce the ad load on the internet at large with long-term neutral, or even positive, business impact." ([1] [2]) "Crappy ad experiences are behind the uptick in ad-blocking tools" ([1]) On filter bubbles, a new study finds algorithms yield more diversity of content than people choosing news themselves ([1] [2] [3]) Facebook data center fun: "The inclusion of 480 4 TB drives drove the weight to over 1,100 kg, effectively crushing the rubber wheels." ([1]) Great data on who uses which social networks ([1]) "One of the great mysteries of the tech industry in recent years has been the seeming disinterest of Google, which is now called Alphabet, in competing with Amazon Web Services for corporate customers." ([1]) "Maybe part of AWS value prop is the outsourcing of outages: when half the net is offline, any individual down site doesn't look as bad." ([1]) "87% of Android devices are vulnerable to attack by malicious apps ... because manufacturers have not provided regular security updates" ([1]) Fun maps showing where tourists take photos compared to locals ([1] [2] [3]) Multiple camera lenses, an idea soon coming to mobile phones too? ([1]) Another interesting camera technology: "17 different wavelengths ... software analyzes the images and finds ones that are most different from what the naked eye sees, essentially zeroing in on ones that the user is likely to find most revealing" ([1]) And another: "Take a short image sequence while slightly moving the camera ... to recover the desired background scene as if the visual obstructions were not there" ([1]) Useful to know: "Survey results are mostly unaffected when the non-Web respondents are left out." ([1]) Surprising finding, meal worms can thrive just eating styrofoam: "the larvae lived as well as those fed with a normal diet (bran) over a period of 1 month" ([1]) Autonomous drone for better-than-GoPro filming? ([1] [2]) "We see people turning onto, and then driving on, the wrong side of the road a lot ... Drivers do very silly things when they realize they’re about to miss their turn ... Routinely see people weaving in and out of their lanes; we’ve spotted people reading books, and even one [driver] playing a trumpet." ([1]) A fun and cool collection of messed up images out of Apple maps. It's almost art. ([1]) SMBC comic, also applies to AI ([1]) [...]



Not working at Google

2015-10-02T07:43:02.423-07:00

It was a surprise, to me at least, that I wasn't able to find a good fit at Google Seattle.

Google nowadays is different than I expected, and, after four months of trying hard to find any way to make it what I wanted, I resigned.

I'm saddened and disappointed. On the bright side, I did get a chance to work with many remarkable people, which I think made it worthwhile.(image)



Working at Google

2015-08-30T14:51:53.101-07:00

I joined Google a few months ago. I've wanted to work at Google for a long time. I first interviewed there back in 2003!

I've written on this blog since 2004, during Findory and beyond, but, like many blogs, posts have slowed in recent years. Unfortunately, I don't expect to be able to post much here in the coming months either.

Thanks for reading all these years. I hope you enjoyed this blog, and I hope to be able to post frequently again at some point in the future. (image)



Quick links

2015-05-01T12:57:38.550-07:00

Some of the best of what I've been thinking about lately:
  • Amazon now has 109 warehouses and 165k employees. Wow. ([1])

  • Amazon cloud computing has 17% operating margins, surprisingly high given all the competition ([1] [2])

  • Microsoft appears to be claiming they're going to be bigger than Amazon AWS in three years ([1])

  • But Amazon's Andy Jassy says, "One of the biggest surprises around this business has been how long it took the old guard companies to try and pursue an offering. None of us thought we would get a seven-year head start.” ([1])

  • Apple is the iPhone ([1])

  • Great article on the history of YouTube: "It's easy to forget YouTube almost didn't make it" ([1])

  • Mobile ads still aren't targeted (unlike Web ads) ([1] [2])

  • Browsers are disabling Java and Silverlight by default, and Flash's days might be numbered ([1])

  • Surprising how few people use their mobile to get directions, look up public transit, or request a taxi ([1])

  • A major predictor of how much people like a picture of a face is how sharp and clear the eyes are in the photo ([1])

  • Successful tests of a bullet-sized guided missile, cool but very scary ([1] [2])

  • "If an election was hacked any time in the past, we will never know" ([1])

  • "Maybe this head-up display for your life starts as a head-up display for your car" ([1])

  • Beginning of the end for radio: "Norway the first country in the world to 'decide upon an analogue switch-off for all major radio channels'" ([1])

  • A new trend in biology, collecting large amounts of data and doing A/B testing ([1] [2])
(image)



Interview on early Amazon personalization and recommendations

2015-04-06T08:33:53.675-07:00

(image)
Amazon.com in late 1996
(image)
Amazon.com in mid-1997
I have a long interview with the Internet History Podcast mostly about Amazon around 1997, especially the personalization, recommendation engine, and data-driven innovations at Amazon, and the motivation behind them.

I think the interview a lot of fun. It gives a view of what Amazon was like way back when it was just a bookstore only in the US, had just one webserver, and we barely could keep the website up with all the growth.

Lots of history of the early days of the web, well before CSS and Javascript, before cookies were even widely supported, and before scale out, experimentation and A/B testing, and large scale log analysis were commonplace.

Give the podcast a listen if you are interested in what the Web looked like back in 1997 and the motivation behind Amazon's personalization and recommendations.(image)



Quick links

2015-04-02T18:05:50.133-07:00

What I've been thinking about lately: "The chip is so low power that it can be powered off energy capture from the body ... 35 microamps of power per megahertz of processing ... and less than 200 nanoamps ... in deep sleep mode" ([1]) "Forgetting may be nearly as important as remembering in humans" ([1]) Only 40% of people use maps on their smartphone ([1] [2]) OkCupid and Dataclysm: "In the age of Big Data, the empirical has deciphered the intimate" ([1]) Cross functional teams might seem slower when you're in them, but, long-term, are more productive ([1]) Very good article on mostly evil uses of personalization ([1] [2]) "Fake accounts are given a veneer of humanity by copying profile information and photos from elsewhere ... [and] a picture of a beautiful woman" ([1]) "Because almost no one patches their BIOSes, almost every BIOS in the wild is affected by at least one vulnerability" ([1]) Cracking by forcing non-random memory errors, just about all RAM chips currently used are vulnerable ([1] [2] [3]) Computer security "backdoors will always turn around and bite you in the ass. They are never worth it." ([1] [2]) "Facts can only do so much. To avoid coming to undesirable conclusions, people can fly from the facts and use other tools in their deep belief protecting toolbox" ([1]) Why TV is losing viewers, the ads are annoying: "Decline caused by a migration of viewers from ad-supported platforms to non-ad-supported, or less-ad-supported platforms" ([1]) "The same dysfunctional folie a deux playing out between credulous tech media and even more credulous VC investors" ([1]) Does the difficulty of building intelligent systems grow exponentially as we make progress? That question has big implications for whether we should expect (or fear) an AI singularity. ([1]) Very fun version of Family Feud using Google search suggestions ([1] [2]) Do you know what you don't know? Try this confidence calibration quiz. ([1]) Love this quote: "I have thrown away a number of successful careers out of boredom" ([1]) Humor related to recommendation systems: "An exciting new system that takes all the bother, all the deciding, all the paying—all the shopping—out of shopping." ([1]) Two SMBC comics related to AI ([1] [2]) [...]



Data Maven from Crunchzilla: A light introduction to statistics

2015-03-07T19:09:40.308-08:00

Crunchzilla just launched Data Maven!

Data Maven from Crunchzilla is a light introduction to statistics and data analysis.

For too many teens and adults, if they think about statistics at all, they think it's boring, tedious, or too hard. Too many people have had the experience of trying to learn statistics, only to get bogged down in probability, theory, and math, without feeling that they were able to do anything with it.

Instead, your first exposure to statistics should be fun, interesting, and mostly easy. Data Maven from Crunchzilla is more of a game than a tutorial. To play, you answer questions and solve problems using real data. Statistics is your tool, and data provides your answers. At the end of Data Maven, you'll not only know a bit about statistics, but also maybe even start to think of statistics as fun!

Like programming, statistics and data analysis are tools that make you more powerful. If you know how to use these tools, you can do things and solve problems others cannot. Increasingly, across many fields, people who understand statistics and data analysis can know more, learn more, and discover more.

Data Maven is not a statistics textbook. It is not a statistics class. It is an introduction. Data Maven demystifies statistics. Teens and adults who try Data Maven build their intuition and spark their curiosity for statistics and data.

Please try Data Maven yourself! And please tell others you know who might enjoy it too!(image)



More quick links

2015-03-02T16:38:29.544-08:00

Some of the best of what I've been thinking about lately: Great TED talk titled "The mathematics of love", but probably should be titled "A data analysis of love" ([1]) Manned submarines are about to become obsolete and be replaced by underwater drones ([1] [2] [3]) "No other algorithm scaled up like these nets ... It was a just a question of the amount of data and the amount of computations." ([1] [2]) What Google has done is a little like taking a person who's never heard a sound before, not to mention ever hearing language before, and trying to have them learn how to transcribe English speech ([1] [2]) Teaching a computer to achieve expert level play of old video games by mimicking some of the purpose of sleep ([1] [2]) "Computers are actually better at object recognition than humans now" ([1] [2] [3] [4]) The goal of Google Glass was a "remembrance agent" that acts as a second memory and gives helpful information recommendations in real time ([1] [2] [3]) A new trend, large VC investments in artificial intelligence ([1]) "Possibly the largest bank theft the world has seen" done using malware ([1]) "Users will prioritise immediate gain, and tend to dismiss consequences with no immediate visible effect" ([1] [2]) "Crowds can't be trusted". It's "really a game of spamfighting". ([1] [2]) SMBC comic: "All we have to do is build a trustworthiness rating system for all humans" ([1]) Dilbert describes most business books: "He has no idea why he succeeded" ([1]) Architect Clippy: "I see you have a poorly structured monolith. Would you like me to convert it into a poorly structured set of microservices?" ([1]) Man kicks robot dog. Watching the video, doesn't it make you feel like the man is being cruel? The motion of the robot struggling to regain its balance is so lifelike that it triggers an emotional response. ([1] [2] [3]) SMBC comic: "Are we ever going to use math in real life?" ([1]) [...]



Quick links

2015-02-04T18:29:25.582-08:00

What has caught my attention lately: "Ads are often annoying ... [and] the practice of running annoying ads can cost more money than it earns" ([1] [2] [3]) Robot plays beer pong, but the real story is the clever bean bag robotic gripper using the "jamming phase transition of granular materials" ([1] [2] [3]) Good list of features a modern phone should have but does not ([1]) "At this point, Apple is basically an iPhone company with a few other side businesses ... The iPhone accounted for ... a staggering 69 percent ... of Apple's revenue." ([1]) "We were not building the phone for the customer — we were building it for Jeff [Bezos]" ([1] [2]) "One of the biggest problems in organizations is that the meeting is a tool that is used to diffuse responsibility" ([1] [2]) Pew poll on how opinions of US scientists differ from the US population, and public's perceptions of scientists ([1]) Pair a "brash, young scientist" with a "wiser, older scientist" to maximize innovation ([1] [2] [3]) Google Earth Pro is now free, lets you get high res stills and movies of anywhere on the planet ([1] [2]) People told a placebo was "expensive" had twice the improvement as measured by physical tests and brain scans ([1]) Blind men successfully train themselves to "see" using echolocation, and brain scans determine that they are using the otherwise unused visual centers of their brains to do so ([1] [2] [3] [4] [5]) Rather than modeling crowds with attraction and repulsion between agents, only avoiding anticipated collisions behaves closer to real humans ([1]) Xkcd comic: "I can't wait for the day when all my stupid computer knowledge is obsolete" ([1]) Xkcd What If: "Getting to space is easy. The problem is staying there." ([1]) [...]



More on what to advertise when there is no commercial intent

2015-01-14T16:11:12.797-08:00

Some of the advertising out there is getting spooky. If you look at a product at many online stores, that product will then follow you around the web.

Go to BBC News, for example, and there will be those dishes you were looking at yesterday on Overstock. Not just any dishes, the exact same dishes. Just in case you forgot about them, there they are again next time you go. And again. And again.

A few years ago, I wrote an article, "What to advertise when there is no commercial intent?". That article suggested that, on sites like news sites, we might not have immediate commercial intent, and might have to reach back into the past to find strong commercial intent. It advocated for personalized advertising that helped people discover interesting products and deals related to strong commercial intent they had earlier.

However, this did not mean that you should just show the last product I looked at. That is refinding, not personalized recommendations. Refinding is all a lot of these ads are doing. You look at a chair, ads follow you around the web showing you ads for that same chair that you already know about over and over again. That's not discovery. That's spooky and not helpful.

Personalized ads should help people discover things they don't know about related to past purchase intent. If I look at a chair, show me highly reviewed similar furniture and good coupons and big deals related in some non-obvious way to that chair and that store. Don't just show me the same chair again. I know about that chair. Show me something I don't know. Help me discover something I haven't found yet.

I understand the reason these companies are doing refinding is because it's hard to do anything better. Doing useful recommendations of related products and deals is hard. Helping people discover something new and interesting is hard. Personalized recommendations requires a lot of data, clever algorithms, and a huge amount of work. Refinding is trivially easy.

But publishers aren't doing themselves any favors by allowing these startups to get away with this kind of useless advertising. As a recent study says, "the practice of running annoying ads can cost more money than it earns." That short-term revenue bump from these spooky refinding ads is like a sugar rush, feels good while it lasts, but hurts in the long-term.

They can and should do better. Personalization, including personalized advertising, should be about helping people discover things they could not easily find on their own. Personalization should not be refinding, just showing what I found before, just exposing my history. Personalization should be helpful. Personalization should be discovery.(image)



Quick links

2015-01-02T14:10:54.567-08:00

Some of the best of what I've been thinking about lately: Tiny cheap satellites will provide near real-time imagery of the entire Earth to anyone who wants it, starting in about a year ([1] [2] [3]) Amplifying motion and color changes in video, which allows augmented perception ([1] [2]) Birds can hear the very low frequency sound produced by severe weather and are able to flee well in advance of incoming storms ([1]) Nice example of blending computer science with another field, in this case genealogy, to yield big new gains ([1]) "An energy gradient 1000 times greater than traditional particle accelerators" ([1]) People "don't want to watch commercials, are fleeing networks, hate reruns, are increasingly bored by reality programming, shun print products and, oh, by the way, don’t want to pay much for content either. Yikes." ([1] [2]) Everything we know Google is working on ([1]) Funny and informative: "Riding in a Google Self-Driving Car" ([1]) Google is rejecting security based on firewalls ([1] [2] [3]) "Whether you call it a Star Trek Universal Translator or Babel fish, Microsoft is building it, and it's incredible." ([1]) "Every dollar a worker earns in a research field spills over to make the economy $5 better off. Every dollar a similar worker earns in finance comes with a drain, making the economy 60 cents worse off." ([1]) "I’m a big believer in making effectively infinite computing resources available internally ... [Give] teams the resources they need to experiment ... All employees should be limited only by their ability rather than an absence of resources or an inability to argue convincingly for more." ([1]) "We think of it as a one-on-one tutor. It will test you and generate a personal lesson plan just for you." ([1]) "Apparently, a sufficient number of puppies can explain any computer science concept. Here we have multithreading:" ([1]) Fantastic to see a US president promoting computer programming to kids: "Becoming a computer scientist isn't as scary as it sounds. With hard work and a little math and science, anyone can do it." ([1]) [...]



More quick links

2014-12-03T17:50:44.610-08:00

More of what caught my attention lately: "Make infinite computing resources available internally ... Give teams the resources they need to experiment ... All employees should be limited only by their ability rather than an absence of resources or an inability to argue convincingly for more." ([1] [2]) "Accept that failures will always happen and guard ... [against] cascading failures by purposefully causing failures" ([1] [2]) "The importance of Netflix’s recommendation engine is actually underestimated" ([1] [2]) Courts are getting more skeptical about software patents ([1]) Nice way of putting it: "The prevailing business culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines the honesty norm" ([1] [2]) "[On] the overcrowded, overstuffed, slow-loading web, you are bound to see a carnival of pop-ups and interstitials — interim ad pages served up before or after your desired content — and scammy come-ons daring you to click. Is it any wonder, really, that this place is dying?" ([1]) A very effective social engineering attack "compromised the accounts of C-level executives, legal counsel, regulatory and compliance personnel, scientists, and advisors of more than 100 [major] companies" ([1]) An 11 hour Microsoft Azure cloud service outage that impacted just about everyone using it worldwide, including internal users like MSN.com and Xbox Live ([1]) Stack traces at arbitrary break points in Google's cloud services running live with near zero overhead ([1] [2]) Free SSL certificates (for HTTPS) from a non-profit out of EFF, Mozilla, Cisco, and Akamai ([1]) The journal Nature makes its papers free for everyone to read ([1] [2]) Combining neural networks like components yields new breakthroughs ([1] [2]) Robotics guru Rodney Brooks says, "Relax. Chill ... [The press has a] misunderstanding of how far we really are from having volitional or intentional artificially intelligent beings." ([1]) Undersea drones are enabling new feats: "The first time ... the black sea devil anglerfish ... has been filmed alive and in its natural habitat" ([1]) Bats jam the sonor of other bats when they're both trying to catch the same insect. It's like a dogfight up there. ([1]) Great tutorial on CSS and HTML just launched by Khan Academy and jQuery's John Resig ([1]) Fun visualization of the periodic table by how common the elements are in the earth's crust, ocean, human body, and sun ([1]) Hilarious parody of the Amazon Echo promotional video ([1]) South Park has a surprisingly good (and funny) criticism of freemium games that gets all the issues correct around preying on people with a tendency toward compulsive gambling ([1] [2]) Great Dilbert comic on how engineers think of marketing ([1]) Good Xkcd comic on over-optimization ([1]) Loved this SMBC comic: "He said I wasn't very good at math" ([1])  [...]



Quick links

2014-11-03T19:52:36.746-08:00

What has caught my attention recently: Netflix says the value of its recommendations algorithms is $500M/year ([1]) Details on the internals of LinkedIn's recommender system ([1]) Fantastic list of some hard and interesting big data problems at Facebook ([1] [2]) Google Glass may target "'superhero vision', like seeing in the dark, or magnifying subtle motion or changes" ([1] [2]) A claim that Amazon's cloud revenue is $4.7B this year, supposedly x30 bigger than Microsoft ($156M) and x70 Google's ($66M) ([1]) "We have a 10 petabyte data warehouse on S3" ([1]) Google's Eric Schmidt says, "Our biggest search competitor is Amazon" ([1]) Apple was and still is almost entirely an iPhone company ([1]) Tablet sales are projected to be flat now, and the growth boom for tablets appears to be done ([1]) But, it's interesting that specialized, expensive, and often poorly done custom hardware is getting replaced with a cheap touchscreen tablet ([1]) So far, it doesn't look like Windows 10 is going to fix what was wrong with Windows 8 ([1]) What? "Microsoft loves Linux" ([1] [2]) Delivery startups are back: "Silicon Valley wants to save you from ever having to leave your couch. Will it work this time around?" ([1]) Despite the difficulty older adults have with tiny mobile keyboards, older adults and seniors don't use voice search much ([1]) Speculation that hardware to enable gesture control on mobile phones will be widespread on new phones next year ([1]) A claim that "solar will soon reach price parity with conventional electricity in well over half the nation: 36 states" ([1]) "HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printer can crank out objects 10 times faster than any machine that’s on the market today ... 3D print heads that can operate 10,000 nozzles at once, while tracking designs to a five-micron precision." ([1] [2]) Is biology about to be transformed by the use of many drones to gather lots of data? ([1] [2]) More evidence that some of the best innovations come from combining ideas from two very separate fields ([1]) "Every success in AI redefines it. But we haven't just been redefining what we mean by AI-we've been redefining what it means to be human [and intelligent]." ([1]) "China is merely regaining a title that it has held for much of recorded history" ([1]) Funny Dilbert comic on multitasking and checking e-mail too often ([1]) The Onion: "This already vanishing glimmer of pleasure is exactly what we've come to expect from Apple" ([1]) Great SMBC comic: "The humans aren't doing what the math says. The humans must be broken." ([1]) [...]



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

2014-10-25T08:40:24.789-07:00

You can get over-the-air HDTV signals using an antenna. This antenna gets a better, stronger signal with less interference if it is direct line-of-sight and as near as possible to the broadcast towers. So, you might want an antenna that is up high or even some distance away to get the best signal. But if you try to do this, you immediately run into a question: At what point does that antenna become too long to be legal or the signal from the antenna is transmitted in a way where it is no longer legal? Let's say I put an antenna behind my TV hooked up with a wire. That's obviously legal and what many people currently do. Let's say I put an antenna outside on top of a tree or my garage and run a wire inside. Still seems obviously legal. Let's say I put an antenna on top of my roof. Still clearly fine. Let's say I put it on my neighbor's roof and run a wire to my TV. Still ok? Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my WiFi network and transmit the signal using my local area network instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok? Let's say I put the antenna on my neighbor's roof, but have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit the signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok? Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, but my neighbor won't do this for free. I have to pay a small amount of rent to my neighbor for the space on his roof used by my antenna. I also have the antenna connect to my neighbor's WiFi network and transmit its signal over their WiFi, over the internet, then to my WiFi, instead of using a direct wired cable connection. Still ok? Let's say, like before, I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal. But, this time, I buy the antenna from my neighbor at the beginning (and, like before, I own it now). Is that okay? Let's say I put my antenna on my neighbor's roof, pay the neighbor rent for the space on his roof, use the internet to transmit the antenna's signal, but now I rent or lease the antenna from my neighbor. Still ok? If this is not ok, which part is not ok? Is it suddenly ok if I replace the internet connection with a direct microwave relay or hardwired connection? Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a neighbor's roof three houses away. Still ok? Let's say I do all of the last one, but use a roof on a building five blocks away. Still ok? Let's say I rent an antenna on top of a skyscraper in downtown Seattle and have the signal sent to me over the internet. Not ok? The Supreme Court recently ruled Aereo is illegal. Aereo put small antennas in a building and rented them to people. The only thing they did beyond the last thing above is time-shifting, so they would not necessary send the signal from the antenna immediately, but instead store it, and only transmit it when demanded. You might think it's the time shifting that's the problem, but that didn't seem to be what the Supreme Court said. Rather, they said the intent of the 1976 amendments to US copyright law prohibit community antennas (which is one antenna that sends its signal to multiple homes), labelling those a "public performance". They said Aereo's system was similar in function to a community antenna, despite actually having multiple antennas, and violated the intent of the 1976 law. So, the qu[...]



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

2014-10-24T07:48:52.840-07:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Quick links

2014-10-01T19:08:49.236-07:00

What caught my attention lately: 12% of Harvard is enrolled in CS 50: "In pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future" ([1]) Excellent "What If?" nicely shows the value of back-of-the-envelope calculations and re-thinking what exactly it is you want to do ([1]) The US has almost no competition, only local monopolies, for high speed internet ([1] [2]) You can't take two large, dysfunctional, underperforming organizations, mash them together, and somehow make diamonds. When you take two big messes and put them together, you just get a bigger mess. ([1]) "Yahoo was started nearly 20 years ago as a directory of websites ... At the end of 2014, we will retire the Yahoo Directory." ([1] [2]) Investors think that Yahoo is essentially worthless ([1]) "At a moment when excitement about the future of robotics seems to have reached an all-time high (just ask Google and Amazon), Microsoft has given up on robots" ([1]) "Firing a bunch of tremendously smart and creative people seems misguided. But hey—at least they own Minecraft!" ([1]) "Macs still work basically the same way they did a decade ago, but iPhones and iPads have an interface that's specifically designed for multi-touch screens" ([1] [2]) On the difficulty of doing startups ([1] [2]) "Be glad some other sucker is fueling the venture capital fire" ([1]) "Just how antiquated the U.S. payments system has become" ([1]) Is everyone grabbing money from online donations to charities? Visa's charge fee on charities is only 1.35%, but the lowest online payment system for charities charges 2.2% and most charge much more than that. ([1]) "For most people, the risk of data loss is greater than the risk of data theft" ([1]) Password recovery "security questions should go away altogether. They're so dangerous that many security experts recommend filling in random gibberish instead of real answers" ([1]) Brilliantly done, free, open source, web-based puzzle game with wonderfully dark humor about ubiquitous surveillance ([1]) How Udacity does those cool transparent hands in its videos ([1]) There's just a bit of interference when you move your hand above the phone, just enough interference to detect gestures without using any additional power or sensors ([1] [2]) Small, low power wireless devices powered by very small fluctuations in temperature ([1] [2]) Cute intuitive interface for transferring data between PC and mobile ([1] [2]) "Federal funding for biomedical research [down 20%] ... forcing some people out of science altogether" ([1]) Another fun example of virtual tourism ([1]) Ig Nobel Prizes: "Dogs prefer to align themselves to the Earth's north-south magnetic field while urinating and defecating" ([1]) Xkcd: "In CS, it can be hard to explain the difference between the easy and the virtually impossible" ([1] [2]) Dilbert: "That process sounds like a steaming pile of stupidity that will beat itself to death in a few years" ([1]) Dilbert on one way to do job interviews ([1]) The Onion: "Startup Very Casual About Dress Code, Benefits" ([1]) Hilarious South Park episode, "Go Fund Yourself", makes fun of startups ([1]) [...]