Archive for ‘tech’

2017/02/02

Machinima! Scripting!

As reblogged (“reblogged”) over on the Secret Second Life Weblog, there is a new Second Life machinima out from the impressive (virtual, international) team of Randt and Hoisan (here is Natascha Randt’s weblog entry in German even). Both of them say nice things about me (well, about that Dale person’s) contributions, of which I am (Dale is) quite proud, even though (don’t tell anyone) scripting in Second Life is pretty much always very easy programming.

I should really do a weblog entry sometime about Second Life scripting, because it’s pretty wild. The language it’s done in is a bizarre little thing; the rumor that it was put together over a weekend just to have something working, without much thought, may be true or false, but it certainly feels that way. It’s almost-but-not-quite event-driven, objects are almost-but-not-quite immutable, lists are almost-but-not-quite first-class objects, etc, etc, etc.

And you can tell the built-in functions because they all start with “ll” (el-el, not eleven).

That weblog entry should probably be in the other weblog, though. :)

Besides recommending that you watch the machinima in the first paragraph there (which is very well worth watching!) I will just say here that Second Life is still out there, and still going strong, with constant events, DJs, live music, games, romance an’ drama, shopping (SO MUCH shopping!), building of castles and piloting of vintage airplanes, SF buildings and philosophy discussions lame and non-lame, many strippers on dancepolls, people being dragons and tiny otters and suchlike, and general wild creativity and madness and fun.

There are all sorts of other “VR” and suchlike going on, as the song seems to have come ’round on the guitar again, but I’m not convinced by any of them, including the ones done by Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life. I still strongly believe that enabling users to create content, simply and inside a shared world and without mastering any 3D modeling tools or knowing what a normal map is, is key to why Second Life works, and that all the new efforts centering on geeky 3D goggles and higher resolution displays and giving each creator their own private world, are pretty much entirely missing the point.

I admit I don’t know what to make of, or do about, the fact that the Second Life population has more or less plateau’d in size; but I don’t think anyone else does, either, or that geeky 3D goggles are the thing that’s going to get it to the next ten million users…

So we’ll see!

 

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2017/01/03

The Google Interview: Python isn’t special

I’m gonna depart somewhat from my usual practice here today, and talk about something that more or less normal people might be interested in :) and talk more explicitly than usual about The Employer.  I will also put in an odious subhead, to help normal people find it; regular readers are invited to read it ironically:

How to Ace that All-Important Google Coding Interview

Note that this isn’t actually about how to ace that all-important Google coding interview, but it might help some people do better on it.

First, some credentials: I’m a SWE (SoftWare Engineer) at Google’s New York City office (Google NYC). I do candidate interviews, both for interns and full-time applicants, both on the phone and in person. Many of these are the archetypal Google coding interview, where you come in and say Hi, and then the interviewer gives you a little problem to write the code for a solution to, in basically the language of your choice.

(Not all Google interviews are like this, but if you’re applying for a job at Google that involves coding in any way, some of your interviews will be like this; likely even most of them will.)

One thing I’ve noticed recently, and that this weblog entry is about, is that people tend to pick Python as the language to do their interview coding in, even if they aren’t actually fluent in Python.

I don’t know why anyone would do this, but I’ve heard the same thing anecdotally from other interviewers, and just the other day I had a candidate tell me that while e was actually more fluent in C++, e was going to do the interview problem in Python because it was “more appropriate for the interview context” or other words to that effect.  (It turned out eir Python was not all that good, and that fact did not improve how the interview went.)

Maybe there is a page out there on Quora, or LinkedIn, or the vast ecosystem of How to Ace that All-Important Google Coding Interview links, that encourages everyone to do it in Python.  Maybe there are even recruiters who suggest it as a good language for the interview if you are fluent in it, and some people falsely assume that they are fluent because they know about the colons and indentation conventions.

Maybe the thought, the meme, is that since Python is supposedly good for quickly developing short one-off programs, and that’s pretty much what you’re doing during a code interview, Python should be good for code interviews.

Here’s the thing, though: Python is good for quickly developing short one-off programs only if you’re actually fluent in Python. Otherwise, you will do better using whatever language you are in fact fluent in.

(Ideally one of the Official Google Languages, which are, in alphabetical order and lower case: c++, go, java, javascript, and python; and also including any other language specifically mentioned in a job listing you’re applying for, if any.  If you can absolutely rock the interviewer’s socks in Haskell or Oberon or LISP or something, I’d say go for that, too, but only if you can really rock their socks, not if you just think you can; and those are hard to tell apart from the inside. So maybe play it safe.)

What does it mean to be actually fluent in Python?  As above, it’s not just knowing the basic syntax with the colons and indenting and all.  Before using Python for an interview, rather than your actual preferred language, you should be sure:

  • You are comfortable writing Python code, and have done a significant amount,
  • You know what __init__ does,
  • Writing “self” in the right places (and not in the wrong ones) comes naturally,
  • You know what “self” is for,
  • You know that it doesn’t actually need to be spelled “self”,
  • You know why it always is, despite not needing to be,
  • You know how to code a list comprehension, and do it naturally when appropriate,
  • You know that range() only operates on integers, and what do to about this,
  • You know how to compensate for method parameters being untyped,
  • You could add two or three more things to this list with a bit of thought.

And yeah, that is a relatively high bar; you want to show off your problem analysis and design and coding skills, and you don’t want your unfamiliarity with your chosen tool to get in the way of doing that.

In general I’d say just always go with your preferred language (from the Official List, with caveats as above).  But if you’re convinced that the interview will really go better in Python, check yourself against the list above.  And then consider using your preferred language anyway, one more time.

The above is solely the opinion of the author, and in no way an official position of his employer, or anyone else. Google has some pretty good advice on this general subject that you’d be well-advised to look at; see for instance https://careers.google.com/how-we-hire/interview/.

2016/05/29

One or more network protocols are missing!

I want to write a random woolgathering post about how all various things are happening in the world and thoughts are occurring in the mind of the Ultimate Ground of Being and all, but right now I’m going to write about a Microsoft Windows thing, because well there it is right there.

There are many places on the Internets where people are asking or complaining or telling about an error message like “One or more network protocols are missing from this computer” and/or the associated “Windows sockets registry entries required for network connectivity are missing”, presented by various different “Microsoft Windows” operating systems, often but not always after making some change to the system (like being fooled into upgrading to Windows 10, for instance), and finding that networking isn’t working (haha!) through one or more channels through which it ought to be.

In my case it happened after I put a nice little Ethernet splitter in the basement (between the house modem-thing (cable or phone company or something I always forget) and the little boy’s room where the PS/4 or 5 or 7 is, which is there because the WiFi doesn’t really reach quite to that end of the house) and ran another Ethernet cable from that into the Maid’s Room (we don’t actually have a maid, but maybe someone did once), and plugged the end of that cable into an Ethernet-to-USB adapter, and that into a USB port on this laptop here, because really the WiFi doesn’t reach all that well into the Maid’s Room either, at least not if I’m lying comfortably back on the little bed there ’cause I’m staying up late in WoW or Second Life or whatever.

Anyway! After doing all of that plugging, Windows saw that it had an Ethernet connection, but it couldn’t get to the Internet through it, and the reasons that it gave were the (misleading, erroneous, and generally unhelpful) messages above, there. The little boy’s PS/whatever worked fine, even after replugging of things to make sure it wasn’t a bad port on the splitter or something, so I suspected Windows.

After trying all various suggestions that I found on the Internets (via the WiFi connection, while not lying back too far) and the YouTubes (why do people make videos of things that could just as easily be written down?), involving resetting things and restarting things, none of which worked, I clicked down into more menus in Windows, and found what the problem was in my case.

All modern client computers (that is, everything but servers managed by professional IT persons and their close equivalents) these days get their IP addresses assigned by asking the network for a conveniently-free one. But clicking down into the “Properties” of the “TCP/IP V4” or whatever thing listed under the Ethernet connection in the “Change settings of this connection” in the “Network Connections” section of the Windows Configuration maze, I found that the “Use the following IP address” box was checked, and that there was no IP address following it.

Checking “Obtain an IP address automatically” instead (and also “Obtain DNS server addresses automatically”, which also wasn’t checked) fixed the networking problem pretty much instantly. Something that had nothing whatever to do with missing network protocols, or Windows Socket registry entries, and that apparently, despite being blindingly obvious in retrospect, none of the various “Troubleshooters” that I’d run on the way there had thought to do.

Pheh!

tl;dr: If you have the “One or more network protocols are missing” and/or “Windows sockets registry entries required for network connectivity are missing” problems on your Windows computer, drill down into the TCP/IP properties of the network connection in question, and make sure “Obtain an IP address automatically” and “Obtain DNS server addresses automatically” are checked. (Unless for some reason you don’t want them to be, in which case make sure that the proper IP addresses are in fact filled in!)

And Windows’ error messages and troubleshooters are really very bad.

2016/03/25

No, we still don’t have conversational AI

Yeah, yeah, here I am being annoyed by more or less this same thing again. Everyone needs a hobby. :)

This time it’s a number of things I’ve seen lately that say or imply that we now have AI that can carry on a convincing conversation, that knows what it’s saying, and like that.

First, we have this extremely creepy thing:

It is wrong on so very many levels (“Hot” Robot??). In the linguistic and AI wrongnesses, virtually everything that “she” says in the video is clearly just text-to-speech running on some pre-written text; we don’t have software smart enough to come up with “I feel like I can be a good partner to humans — an ambassador”, let alone to say it and mean it, for any useful sense of “mean it”.

And then at the end, for whatever reason, the robot is hooked up to the typical “AIML” sort of silliness that I have ranted about here before (in archives that are currently offline; have to get that fixed sometime), and also over on the Secret Secondlife Weblog (see the “MyCyberTwin” section of this post, say), and hilarity ensues.

The reporter says “do you want to destroy humans?”, and the “AI” software notices that this matches its template “do you want to X”, and it plays the hardcoded response (perhaps chosen at random from a small set) “okay, I will X”.

And so now we have an “AI” saying “I will destroy humans”, and lots and lots of hits.

But in fact this robot, and the software running it, doesn’t know what humans are, doesn’t know what it means to destroy something, and for that matter doesn’t know what “I will” means. Let alone “I”. Or anything else. All it’s doing is recognizing words in speech, matching the words against a look-up table, and playing a canned response. It is just as determined to destroy humans as is a coffee tin with two googly eyes and a “destroy humans” sign pasted onto it.

Which brings us to “Everything you know about artificial intelligence is wrong“, which is structured as a series of “It’s a myth that X, because it might not be true that X” paragraphs (suggesting that the author hasn’t thought very hard about the meaning of “myth), but which for our purposes is mostly interesting because it bit me with this sentence:

We already have computers that match or exceed human capacities in games like chess and Gostock market trading, and conversations.

Chess and Go, yes (yay, employer!); stock market trading and especially conversations, not so much.

Following the “conversations” link, we come to the story of “Eugene Goostman”, a program which is said to have “passed the Turing Test” last year by convincing more than 30% of judges that it was a human.

30% seems like a pretty low bar, but after looking at an actual transcript of the program’s conversation, I’m amazed it scored above zero. The judges must have been very incompetent, very stoned, or (most likely) very motivated to have a program pass the test (because that would be cool, eh?).

Given this transcript, it’s painfully obvious that “Goostman” is just running that same stupid AIML / MyCyberTwin pattern-matching algorithm that was very cool in 1965 when Weizenbaum wrote ELIZA, but which is only painful now; anyone taking any output from this kind of program seriously, or announcing it as any sort of breakthrough in anything, just has no clue what they are talking about (or are cynically lying for clicks).

Which makes it almost refreshing (not to mention the schadenfreude) to be able to mention a spectacular “conversational AI” failure that was apparently not driven by the usual AIML lookup-table.

Specifically, Microsoft’s recent Tay debacle, in which a highly-imitative conversation bot was put up on Twitter and began imitating the worst of human online behavior. In a way, Twitter was a brilliant choice of task: expectations for coherence on Twitter are low to start with, and interactions are short and often formulaic. But given that Tay appears (appeared?) to operate mostly by straight-up mimicry, the team behind it must either have had very limited knowledge of what Twitter is actually like, or have expected exactly this outcome and the resulting publicity (I’m such a cynic!).

But the most amusing part for me is that Microsoft now has to firmly emphasize that its software has no idea what it’s talking about, and doesn’t mean what it says, and that when it seems to suggest genocide or deny the reality of the Holocaust, it’s just parroting back what others have said to it, with no intelligence or understanding.

Which is basically my point. :)

For those who have tuned in only recently, I’m a Strong AI guy; I think there’s no reason we can’t eventually make a computer that can carry on a real conversation, and that understands and means what it says. So when John Searle comes up with circular arguments that computers can’t think because they don’t have the causal powers of the brain, or says that he knows his dog is conscious because it has deep brown eyes and adorable floppy ears, I am similarly annoyed.

I think the only thing standing in the way of our making intelligent software is that we have no idea how to do that. And that’s something we can fix! But in the meantime, can we stop pretending that trivial pattern-matching “conversation” is in any way interesting?

P.S. When I tweeted (“tweeted”) to Tay, she ignored the content of my “tweet”, and replied lyrically “er mer gerd erm der berst ert commenting on pics. SEND ONE TO ME!”. When I sent her a lovely picture of a brightly-colored banana slug, as one does, she responded “THIS IS NOT MERELY A PHOTOGRAPH THIS IS AN ARTISTIC MASTERPIECE”.

I was not impressed.

2016/02/10

Understanding anything in a matter of minutes!

I don’t know why there is so much snake-oil and hype in AI, and in all those fields that are AI hiding under another name, like for instance “Cognitive”.

Maybe I am just cynical? Maybe there is no more snake-oil in AI than in any other area, and I’ve just looked into it more. (There’s certainly snake-oil in anti-virus, and in philosophy of mind, and… Hm…)

But anyway! The thing I want to complain about this time is the whole “Cognitive” thing, and in particular this “Decoding the debates – a cognitive approach” article that showed up as a Promoted Tweet or something this morning in The Twitters.

I was at IBM Research when the whole Cognitive Computing thing was conceived. Although I wasn’t involved with it, I went to some of the seminars and information sessions and teas and stuff, and was unimpressed.

They had various smart (or smart-looking) people appear on screens and talk about how Cognitive systems can do all sorts of smart things, by being smart and working like brains and stuff, without any actual substantive material about why this particular attempt to make systems smarter was going to work any better than any prior attempts.

The “cognitive approach” revealed in the article is to see which distinctive words the various candidates used during the debates, draw Venn diagrams showing how Rs used some words and Ds used some other words, and they both used some of the same words.

Then you can read news articles found by searching for candidates’ names and some of those words, and you will understand the debates.

The very last capping sentence of the story is:

It makes understanding anything in a matter of minutes.

(which is, notably, not strictly-speaking an English sentence; apparently “anything” doesn’t include, say, the art of proofreading).

If we make a reasonable attempt to fix this sentence, and come up with, say, “It makes understanding anything possible in a matter of minutes”, we come up with something that is, obviously, untrue. So utterly untrue as to insult the reader’s intelligence, in fact.

Understanding anything in a matter of minutes? Really? I mean, really? A little textual analysis and web searching is going to lead to understanding of the nature of consciousness, the paradox of free will, the joy and heartache of love, the puzzle of the human condition, the causes of poverty, in minutes? Things that have eluded all of us for centuries, and that no one on Earth has ever understood, are going to be mastered in minutes using the amazing Watson APIs?

No, of course not, that would be idiotic to suggest. But it’s what the words there say.

Is it even plausible to argue that reading a few articles found by looking up D keywords and R keywords and Both keywords, will even give someone a basic understanding of the issues in these debates, in a matter of minutes?

No, clearly it isn’t. If I happen to find an article in my search that happens to give me a little basic understanding of something, it will because I happened to find a good article, not because of anything “cognitive” that came out of the keyword-listing.

Does this approach work well for anything at all? Well, if it did, it seems natural that this article would link to a live example, that the reader could interact with, and come to some understanding of something in a few minutes.

Given that it doesn’t link to anything like that, we can conclude that in fact it doesn’t work well, for anything at all.

Maybe we fixed the sentence wrong.

It makes understanding anything in a matter of minutes no less unlikely than ever.

There ya go.

Sigh.

File under “snake-oil”.

2015/11/07

The dreams of my cellphone

So my cellphone of course has predictive input, as cellphones do, where it guesses three words that you might be planning to type, and displays them so you can choose one if you want (or just keep typing otherwise).

And one fun thing is that even if you haven’t typed anything yet, it will still predict what you might be going to type, because why not.  And once you choose a word it will suggest the three words that you might want next, and so on.

So you can drive the predictive model forwards without input, by just (for instance) picking the first suggested word repeatedly, until say you get into a loop.  And at the moment if you do that with my phone, you get this:

If the user to be in touch and I am going on the way I am going on the way I am going.

and then it loops I am going on the way I am going on the way I am going.

And if you choose the second, middle, one over and over you get:

I am not sure if you have any questions or concerns please please please please please.

in which it is notable that the second suggestion after “please” is “please”.  :)

Repeatedly choosing the third one gives this:

The first week and then the following file and then the following file.

and then the following file and then the following file.

Choosing the first then second then third, then first then second then third:

If you want me to be in the future of the day and I have to be able and willing I would like the one that you have any further information please do you have a good time and I will send the money and the rest and relaxation and then delete it immediately by return mail to you by the way you could send you the best time for the first one is in a few minutes ago and he said he will have to do you have a good time and I will send the money and the rest.

A still more complex pattern, one-one-two I think it was, produced this still more substantial chunk of text:

If the reader is not the named recipient only for use by others or forwarding of any action taken in reliance upon the contents to anyone else who might be a great day of school and the other day I can do to get a new email address is the best of my life is a good day for me know what you are hereby notified with the site and the rest is fine with the following link if I can get the chance of the individual sender and destroy all electronic mail message by mistake please immediately by return to me know what I can get the chance of the individual sender.

You are hereby notified!

I don’t know if any of the prediction there is learned from my own writing, although it doesn’t seem likely.  I don’t write about named recipients much, or in fact at all.  So most likely it has been trained on some standard body of text (including some legalese!) and either it doesn’t change that with experience, or my own writing patterns (I don’t write all that much on the phone after all) haven’t provided it with enough information to change the model substantially.

The rest is fine!

2015/03/27

Gin and Juice: Summary

Good that old Wikipedia versions never die.

Summary

The song begins with a sound effect of a human urinating, followed by an interlude in which an unknown male is speaking, denouncing one of his associates for either committing maternal-sodomy in the immediate vicinity or for having bad breath, it remains unclear which. The unknown male requests some bubblegum, presumably to remedy the situation.

We are then introduced to the narrator with the nom de plume of Snoop Dogg as he discusses the exigencies of his life; his hometown of Long Beach, California, is very dramatic. He finds the will to create his unique musical style amidst all this drama, and does so daily. He then entreats the listener (affectionately called a “g”) to enjoy his tale in said musical style.

Snoop Dogg’s tale starts at 2 am in his domicile, where a party has been taking place and is able to continue late into the night due to the temporary absence of his mother. Women are copulating in his living room, presumably in a lesbian fashion, and intend to do so until 6 am, when they will depart. Snoop Dogg and his associates decide to join the sapphic women. Ever-prepared, they pull condoms out of their pockets before turning off the lights and shutting the doors behind them.

After making it clear that his regard for the females does not involve love, Snoop Dogg and his associates decide that the use of one ounce of marijuana would be a fitting commemoration of the casual polyamorous scenario. Rather than go into details of what is taking place behind closed doors, he tells the listeners (affectionately called “motherfuckas”) to reminisce of revelry in general, preferably while bouncing.

The said revelry consists of the chorus line and the subject of the song title: cruising down the street, smoking marijuana, and sipping on gin and an unnamed juice. The unnamed juice is likely of citrus origin, though the properties of gin are agreeable to all fruit juices.

It is possible that the previous scene, and the upcoming scenes, are projected memories of the narrators told in the present tense. Mr. Dogg then attempts a palindrome about his constant preoccupation with pecuniary matters.

In another memory, Snoop Dogg has procured a bottle of Seagrams brand gin and is intent on consuming it himself, but his associates have worked up a thirst as well. They present their empty cups for Mr. Dogg to fill, but have not offered any payment for the alcohol. Snoop Dogg is angry at the prospect of sharing his alcoholic beverage without reasonable compensation, as these requests happen all too often. He acknowledges their requests, but reminds them that his needs come first.

Snoop Dogg quickly diffuses the situation by reminding the listener that he is very good at cultivating music that captivates his listeners. He wants to know, “Who listens to the words that I speak?” This is most likely a rhetorical question. We do not learn if he ever does share the Seagrams.

Snoop Dogg leaves the party with his beverage to the middle of the street, presumably because his house party has grown beyond the bounds of his yard. He meets a young lady named Sadie who had previously formed a romantic attachment with one of his associates. He flirts with the young lady, but does not expect physical contact because the weather has remained a sultry 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As she initiates physical contact with his testicles, the heat becomes too much. Snoop tells Sadie to refrain from palpating his scrotum and informs her she should not make further contact with that part of him. He says “at ease”, likely to calm down Sadie, but also in an attempt to relax all involved. Snoop Dogg then runs off to engage in an act of mobbing with his associates (affectionately called the “Dog Pound”) in order to cool off and feel a breeze. He urges all to do the same.

We return to the chorus narration, where Snoop Dogg continues to consume marijuana and gin and juice while cruising in a vehicle. He is still concerned about his financial situation, again stated palindromically.

The narrator then recalls a memory that happened later in the same day, presumably at the house party. His friend, Dr. Dre, pays Snoop Dogg a visit, presenting him with several bottles of Tanqueray brand gin and a very well-endowed joint of marijuana. The marijuana is of a strength colloquially described as lethal, which he cleverly alludes to through a reference to the bubonic plague. The combination of drugs proves too intoxicating for Snoop Dogg, and he is forced to imbibe less vivaciously, but he refuses to stop altogether. Snoop Dre then introduces Snoop Dogg to some women who he has brought from a neighboring city in Los Angeles. Snoop Dogg makes his intent to bed (or cot) the women clear, but warns them beforehand that he does not intend to make them climax nor remain near them after copulation has occurred because he does not love them. Women whom he does not love are referred to as “hoes”, the etymological origin of which is unclear, but is in no way related to the garden tool.

The song ends with a repetition of the chorus one more time, where some spontaneous words are uttered after the title verse (a slang word phonetically spelled BEE-OTCH). Mr Dogg’s mental preoccupation with fiscal matters is restated multiple times, likely in attempt to finally make a palindrome, but never succeeding.

2014/12/01

Not sure if that counts…

2014 NaNoWriMo winnerI declared victory on National Novel Generating Month 2014 tonight, it being the end of November; I only got around to a few of the features I’d thought about, but hey, it meets the requirements! I think.

On a whim I also entered it as a National Novel Writing Month novel, although I’m not entirely certain that it counts. Here is the summary page of all my NaNoWriMo novels (I had to enter all but last year’s incomplete attempt from scratch; carrying over data is hard!).

So here is my official Wri/GenMo 2014 novel “Gazanduwo U“, for some reason on Google Drive (I should make it a txt file on davidchess.com as usual, but that requires remembering how), and (more importantly) the very awful source code. Which takes all the mystery (if any) out of it, but there you are.

2014/08/10

Four humbugs

It is all too easy and fun to point out widespread notions that are wrong. Because I’ve seen a bunch lately, and it’s easy, and at the risk of being smug, here are four.

thumb downImpossible space drive is impossible.

Headlines like “NASA validates ‘impossible’ space drive and Fuel-Less Space Drive May Actually Work, Says NASA and so on and so on are silly and even irresponsible.

What actually happened is that a single small “let’s try out some weird stuff” lab at NASA (and I’m glad NASA has those, really) published a paper saying:

They tried out some mad scientist’s law-defying reactionless thruster, and they detected a tiny itty-bitty nearly-indetectable amount of thrust.

As a control case, they tried out a variant that shouldn’t have produced any thrust. In that case, they also detected a tiny itty-bitty nearly-indetectable amount of thrust.

The proper conclusion would be that there is probably an additional source of noise in their setup that they hadn’t accounted for.

Instead they concluded that both the experimental and the control setup were actually producing thrust, and that they are “potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma [sic]”.

Which is just silly, per this G+ posting by an actual physicist, and various similar things.

For the other side of the issue, see Wired.co.uk’s doubling-down Q&A. But I would still bet many donuts against there being any real effect here.

Brain-like supercomputer chip super how, exactly?

IBM Builds A Scalable Computer Chip Inspired By The Human Brain“, “IBM’s new brain-mimicking chip could power the Internet of Things“, “IBM reveals next-gen chip that delivers Supercomputer speed“, etc, etc, etc.

Chief among the things that make me skeptical about how important this is, is that none of the articles that I’ve read give an actual example of anything useful that this chip does any better than existing technologies.

You’d think that’d be kind of important, eh?

Apparently there was a demonstration showing that it can do pattern recognition; but so can an Intel Pentium. It’s also touted as being very low-power, but again it’s not clear to what extent it’s low-power when doing some specific useful task that some conventional technology takes more power to do.

I like this quote:

While other chips are measured in FLOPs, or floating point operations per second, IBM measures the chip in SOPs, or synaptic operations per second.

“This chip is capable of 46 billion SOPs per watt,” Modha said. “It’s a supercomputer the size of a postage stamp, the weight of a feather, and the power consumption of a hearing-aid battery.”

Amazing, eh? If only we knew what a SOP is actually good for…

Hey, my right little toe is capable of 456 trillion quantum vacuum flux plasma operations per second (QVPFOPS) (which I just made up) per watt! It’s a supercomputer! In a little toe! Buy my stock!

(Disclaimer: I used to work for IBM, and they laid off at least one friend who was doing interesting work in actual brain-inspired computing, which I have to admit has not increased my confidence in how serious they are about it. Also I now work for Google, which is sometimes mentioned in the press as experimenting with the “D-Wave” devices, which I suspect are also wildly over-hyped.)

Numbers about “sex trafficking” are just made up.

On the Twitters I follow a number of libertarian posters (with whom I sometimes agree despite no longer identifying as libertarian myself), and lately there’ve been lots of postings about the various societal approaches to sex work.

I tend to think that the more libertarian “arrangements between consenting adults should be regulated only to the extent that there is force or fraud involved” arguments are more convincing than the more prohibitionist “things we wish people wouldn’t do should be outlawed and thereby driven underground where they can be run by criminals who do force and fraud for a living” arguments. (As you might perhaps be able to tell by how I have worded my descriptions of them.)

Recently there was this interesting “In Defense of Johns” piece on Time.com, and this also interesting “Actually, you should be ashamed” rebuttal.

One very striking statement in the latter is this:

U.S. State Department estimates that 80% of the 600,000-800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year are trafficked for sex.

which is a really striking number. Half a million people a year kidnapped and taken to other countries and forced into sex work? That’s horrible!

It’s also completely made up, and almost certainly false.

Here’s a paper on the general subject that includes considerable analysis of these numbers, how wildly they vary from source to source, and how little actual fact there is behind any of them. One salient Justice Department quote:

Most importantly, the government must address the incongruity between the estimated number of victims trafficked into the United States—between 14,500 and 17,500 [annually]—and the number of victims found—only 611 in the last four years… The stark difference between the two figures means that U.S. government efforts are still not enough. In addition, the estimate should be evaluated to assure that it is accurate and reflects the number of actual victims.

Between “we’ve found only one-tenth of one percent of the victims” and “the estimates people have pulled out of their hats to get funding are wildly inflated”, I know where I’d put my money.

There are people forced into sex work, and that’s a terrible crime that we ought to find and punish and disincent. But we need to do that by getting all of the truth that we can, not by artificially inflating numbers (or just outright lying) to get more than our fair share of funds, or by conflating a voluntary activity that we don’t like with actual coercion, or by otherwise acting in bad faith.

Sergeant STAR is not AI.

Okay, this one is a bit of a last-minute addition because it was on On The Media this morning, and it fits with our occasional theme of how bad “chatbots” are.

Basically the U.S. Army has this chatbot that answers questions from potential recruits (and anyone else) about being in the Army and all. The EFF got curious about it and filed a FOIA request which was (after some adventures) more or less answered. Details (and some rather confused distracting speculation about different kinds of bots and privacy threats and things) are on the EFF site.

The Executive Summary is that Sgt STAR is basically an FAQ, with something like 288 pages of Q&A’s, and some kind of heuristic matcher that tries to match each incoming question to one that it knows the answer to, and displays that answer. No big deal, really.

And then (the actually useful part) there are some humans who constantly review the log of questions and update the answers to better match what people are asking, and how reality is changing.

The reason the good Sgt qualifies for a Humbug list is that people (including the bot himself) are constantly referring to it as “intelligent” and “AI” and stuff like that.

You Asked: Are you alive?

SGT STAR: I am a dynamic, intelligent self-service virtual guide…

No, no Sarge, I’m afraid you aren’t.

You’re a well-designed and well-maintained lookup table.

And that’s not what intelligence is.

2014/05/25

The Daisy Knitter

Because everyone’s schedule was actually going to be in sync, we had all four of us planned some time back to go down to the Zoo today. We recently realized that it was going to be Memorial Day Weekend, and were a bit worried that the Zoo might be unpleasantly crowded.

We needn’t have worried, because as it turned out the Zoo was completely inaccessible.

(After an hour or so waiting in traffic, we got within shouting distance of a parking lot entrance that was closed with a LOT FULL sign. A topless young man jumped out of the car ahead of us and went over and talked to the people in orange vests near the sign; as he was coming back M called out the window to him “What did they say?”.

“We’re fucked!” was the metaphorically accurate reply.)

So we drove Northward a bit to Peekskill, had coffee and hung out at the Coffee House (I got a tee shirt!), took pictures on our cellular phones, looked at lots and lots of books at The Bruised Apple, had yummy little pizzas, I mean flatbread, at Gleason’s, and (not in this order) wandered through the Flea Market buying random things.

The most notable random thing I bought was this:

artifact

(shown larger than actual size).

When I asked the owner of the case it was in (with various pieces of costume jewelry, old pocket knives, police whistles, compasses) how much it was, he said “Ah, you’ve got a good eye, look at this”, and he showed me that, if you twist the knob in the center, a stubby bit of wire pokes out from the end of each of those ribs you see radiating from the center in the picture. “That’s five dollars.”

A bargain, clearly! So I bought it.

(Here is an image of it with the wires extended, too.)

And, this being the future, I was able to type the patent number into my cellular telephone while standing there at the Flea Market, and determine that my new possession is technically speaking a Former for Artificial Flowers, patented by Antonia Dolia in 1930 or so.

Turning of the disc on completion of the operation varies its position and withdraws the wires 5 within the casing, the formed flower being thus free for removal to leave the device free for further manufacture.

So with that, and having a nice day in the car and in Peekskill, in lovely weather, with the all-four-of-us family, this has been a lovely day, despite the inaccessibility of the Zoo.

Now the little daughter has gone for a quick tango-related jaunt into The City, and the little boy is off somewhere with his chums, and M and I are sitting here typing on computers and watching people hit tennis balls about on the television.

Earlier I was reading Fred Pohl’s “The Annals of the Heechee”, but got really really tired of being told like three times per page about how Robinette Broadhead is a computer program, and how that means he is so much faster and more parallel than meat people, that I put it down to do something less tedious.

You can therefore partly thank Pohl’s bit of Mary-Sue-ism for this weblog entry. :)

Him, and the (patented) Daisy Knitter.

Now I am thinking of taking this plain grey tee shirt that I have and maybe tie dyeing it with bleach or something. Or maybe a nap…

2014/03/16

Passive Gaming

In retrospect this should have been obvious, but I didn’t notice for awhile…

There’s a sort of continuum in gaming between completely open-world games (with Second Life for instance so far out on that end that it’s hardly a game anymore, and I gather things like the Fallout games also at that end somewhere), and “admire the pretty atmosphere and story while going through the set steps” things (like I dunno Myst and other puzzle games) down toward the other end.

But that’s not the extreme of that end of the continuum. When you’re so worn down by the Meaninglessness of Existence, and Humanity’s Inhumanity to Humanity, and stubbing your toe and all, that all you want to do is lie there and Experience Someone Else’s Stuff without moving your viewpoint around or fighting trivial monsters or solving any puzzles or even clicking Next, it turns out that there’s a whole genre of what I’ll call completely passive games out there, just waiting for you to collapse and fix your eyes on them and not move.

Leverage(Wow, that was a long sentence.)

Just now I spent a pleasant (or at least restful) 45 minutes to an hour playing one of these, an Android game called “Leverage: The Nigerian Job”. It’s a typical modern-day “steal from the thieves” game with a nice sort of twist in the middle.

I was about to say that there are five playable characters, but in a game this passive that doesn’t really mean anything! There are five characters whose viewpoints you play from at one time or another during the game, anyway. The viewpoint can cut very suddenly from one to another, but I didn’t find that especially confusing; it works well.

The story is very linear, and of course since it’s completely passive it plays exactly the same every time (or at least I assume it does; I guess there could be a random element so that it might go differently in different instances of playing it? Not sure.). The graphics are good, if mundane, and in fact, since they know exactly where your viewpoint will be at all times, I think most of the scenes are done live-action, filming real actors doing what the characters do, and then splicing that together to make the game-play.

Assuming there’s no random element (and none of the material about the game that I saw suggests there is), it probably doesn’t have much replay value. They make up for this (at least partially) by packaging the game as a series of “eipsodes”; after “The Nigerian Job” there is a sequel called “Leverage: The Homecoming Job”, and I gather a bunch more after that, with the same characters and in the same basic world, but with different quests or missions.

Also, although I said that it’s an Android game, that’s really not true; because of the completely passive nature of the game, it lends itself really well to server-side rendering. Like what OnLive does for less passive games, but the technical challenges are much simpler; they can basically just record one run through the game, and then stream that down to your client when you want to play. So it’s easy to make these games platform-independent; I played “The Nigerian Job” on my Android phone through a game-streaming app called “NetFlix“, that I gather specializes in these completely passive games, and has versions of its app for various platforms.

And there are alot of them! Some of them seem to be completely passive versions of popular normal games; I see some Star Wars and Star Trek spinoffs, for instance, presumably based on the normal video games in those same worlds. A clever idea!

It felt very frustrating at first, playing this, not being able to even move the viewpoint, much less control the actions of the protagonist (you can’t even customize appearance or clothing; that would make the server-side rendering much harder of course). But I will admit with some shame that the totally passive interaction mode got comfortable very quickly, just sort of sitting there not moving, eyes on the screen, mind sort of half-asleep.

So it was very relaxing and all. I do worry what might happen if this sort of completely passive activity takes off, though; might hundreds or thousands of kids grown up without the mental exercise of interactive games, just sort of sitting on the couch eating Cheetos and “watching”?

That could be bad…

2013/12/29

Sunday, December 29, 2013

As usual all various things have happened since some amount of time ago!

Geek-o-Vision

I now have one of these:

an Oculus Rift device

and as soon as I get this one cable that it needs to attach to the enormous Windows machine, I will try out the demos and maybe like WoW or something (and sometime probably Second Life), and that will probably be amazing or disorienting or both.

(And boy will one look amusing while using it.)

The Smart-o-Phone

Speaking of the enormous Windows machine, I now have yet one more non-Windows computer, running yet one more operating system. Here is the Instagramming of my telephone upgrade:

Phones

Having skipped a few generations there, I now have one of these modern “Smart-o-Phones”, and am apparently an Android user (which also involves chocolate bars in some way).

KitKat logo

The Smart-o-Phone can do all various things; pretty much everything that the “i-Pad” can do, except that it is considerably smaller. But as I have pointed out when comparing a little laptop screen to a big desktop display, the Smart-o-Phone screen can be made pretty much as large as you want just by holding it closer to your eyes…

Oh, also, it has some sort of telephone in it. But that is okay, it does not hardly ring much or anything annoying like that.

I have been installing Smart-o-Phone “apps” on the Smart-o-Phone, which allow me to listen to the radio, and sign into WoW (once I convince WoW that I don’t want to use the i-Pad for that anymore), and look at train schedules, and drive little imaginary trains around a simplified model of Europe:

Pocket Trains

Also (like the i-Pad) you can watch TV on it, which I am in fact doing right now (mostly just because I can); this is mildly convenient if one wants to watch one of the subset of shows that Verizon makes available for streaming. For whatever reason the only thing I ever seem to watch this way is “Law and Order: something something”; they just barely clear the bar of being worth ignoring all those commercials.

Ooh, probably I should install the “Net Flicks app” also! That has things which do not have commercials.

So now I have the Smart-o-Phone running Android, the i-Pad running iOS (and which it’s not entirely clear what it is for now), the work computer running ChromeOs (and Chrome Remote Desktop connecting into the at-work work computer running Goobuntu (haha “Goobuntu”)), and the enormous Windows computer running Windows 7 something something, which is basically just for WoW and Second Life these days (and see recent Facebook thread where I complain about Windows’s virtual memory pessimisation algorithms). And the Oculus Rift. :)

Festivities

Oh yeah, these things happened too!

Cookies!

Solstice Dinner 2013

Solstice Christmas New Year Holidays and all! Which is why I now have the Geek-o-Vision and the Smart-o-Phone and all. :) And the little daughter used some Interweb Site to create and produce this amazing tee shirt:

Best Tee Shirt Ever

which attentive readers will notice is based on a recent weblog posting just right here.

Isn’t that the best thing ever? Such an amazing little daughter…

I’m sure other things have happened also, but those are the only ones I will write down for now I think. Lots of lazing about to do today! :)

Update: some of the images in the above are nefariously appearing or not appearing at random, or perhaps with some weak correlation with my attempts to get them to appear. Tsk!

Update 2: Oh yeah, I was going to talk about Ingress on the Smart-o-Phone too! But I didn’t. Maybe later…

2013/11/11

Extra-solar pond slime

So today I went to a talk by Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude (which, note, I haven’t read yet, although I now have a signed copy; I’ve just heard the talk).

He is all about how incredibly cool it would be to find out that there is life on some planet outside the solar system (by deducing, say, a particular unstable mixture of gasses in its atmosphere that we can’t account for except by life), and that we are not investing nearly enough resources (money) in building the just-now-becoming-possible huge honking telescopes that would help us find such planets.

Or alternately, he says, it would also be extremely important in some way to discover that there isn’t life on any extra-solar planets that we can find, and that therefore we are even Specialer than maybe we thought.

There has recently been an Enormous Boom in the finding of planets outside the Solar System, apparently; an inneresting fact that I hadn’t known. Significant numbers of them are sort of vaguely Earth-like in various ways; also inneresting.

Extra-solar planets

But, as I said during the Q-and-A period (for which I may appear on the YouTube at some point in the future!) I’m not sure how interesting it would really be to know that there is, say, probably pond-slime on Kepler 22b.

The two reasons the speaker gave for the importance of looking for extra-solar planets with life (besides raw coolness, which I don’t think is a good reason to spend billions of dollars, really) were (1) having more places for humans to live by the time the Sun swells up and eats the Earth or whatever, and (2) knowing whether or not We Are Alone In The Universe (hence the title of the book).

In terms of having more places to live, I think that by the time the Sun swells up (a few hundred million years), and even by the time we’re conveniently able to go in large numbers to other solar systems, we’ll long since have just remade ourselves so that we don’t need certain sorts of planets with particular chemistries to live on, so that particular issue will be moot.

And in terms of knowing whether or not we are alone, I think it’s far more important to know whether there’s anyone sentient out there than it is to know whether there’s any carbon-oxygen-based life out there. Given a few dozen billion dollars and the choice between looking for photosynthesis, and looking for intelligent signals, I’m going for the latter.

The extra-solar pond slime is just going to have to wait…

2013/11/10

{coffee,zen}@google

New adventures every day!

Here are a couple more observations that I think I can share without revealing any family secrets.
 

Coffee

You’d think that a place full of coders would be basically powered by coffee.

That’s certainly what I was expecting.

I was picturing, like, huge wall-length banks of those shiny cylindrical coffee machines that are everywhere, constantly being emptied by jazzed young programmers, and filled by a steady stream of staff persons with new grounds.

But it’s not like that at all.

There are fancy digital coffee-making machines in the snack areas (“microkitchens”, whee!), which produce what I imagine is quite good coffee (I’m no judge), but do it slowly. And there aren’t very many of them.

There are a couple or three of the shiny cylindrical coffee machines in the main food-places, but they tend to be awkwardly placed, and there are many things that it’s easier to get to.

There are also espresso machines (cappuccino machines, whatever they’re called) in the microkitchens for general use, along with signs about the time and place where the “how to” classes are offered, and the intranet URL of the relevant informational page(s). Naturally.

All of which encourages slow and thoughtful and high-quality consumption of only finite amounts of coffee.

Which I find fascinating.

As I pointed out the other day, I’m drinking a lot less coffee than I did before the venue change. Maybe the work keeps one awake all by itself. :)
 

Zen

I poked around the intranet a bit my first couple of weeks, figuring that these young hip (haha, “hip”) persons might include some number into meditation (“meditation”) or sitting or even zazen, and while I found some interesting groups dedicated to thinking about the impact of digital technologies on our practices of attention, and about being sure to pause now and then and be in the moment, and like that, they seemed to be mostly based out in Mountain View.

I did one “Mindfulness at your Desk” thing at Noon Eastern, 9am Pacific, where someone out on the Left Coast led a small group of us in meditation over videoconferencing, and that was fine, but a little odd.

I was figuring I could bring in a zafu of my own, and maybe just remember to sit in a quiet place somewhere now and then, when while exploring one of the higher floors of the building I came across a sign saying that sits take place twice daily (!) in the little sort of exercise room / dance studio. And in exploring it I found a cabinet with a bunch of nice high-quality zafus and blankets to go under them.

And the next time one of the twice-daily things came up, I was there, and this smiling person came and talked quietly and asked who would like some guided meditation, and talked softly to them while the rest of us just sat (on the nice zafus and blankets, which it turns out are for general use), and then he rang a lovely Zen bell, and we all sat more, until he rang it again and we slowly got up and went out.

ZOMG, eh?

So I may have a little practice, and maybe even a vague sort of sangha (not that there’s any particular reason to think all or any of the people are Buddhist as such), right there at work.

Who woulda thought?

P.S. This is a very good recipe for Butternut Squash Soup!

2013/11/07

some additional words

So I woke up with some Upper Respiratory invasion on Saturday morning, and didn’t feel pretty much normal until yesterday sometime. That was no particular fun!

It did allow me to determine firsthand that, while the New Employer do as a general rule like team members to interact in person, if you need to work from home for three days because of an invasion of replicators, it is No Problem.

Also, they do Working From Home, like everything else remotely technical, very very well. Really very well. Remarkably. Quite.

read more »

2013/10/26

So much…

So very, very much.

All my walking muscles ache in gratifying ways.

I feel like whole sections of my mind are waking up after long, long naps. Or maybe opening up for the first time.

I like the subway more every time I take it. When you see the same thing for the second, third, fourth time, you see more deeply into it. And seeing more deeply into things is good.

The subway, that’s a good segue into some sort of coherence for this posting. :)

NYCMy morning schedule is now: alarm goes off around 0700, I leave the house around 0720, deal with the parking machines around 0736, catch the 0740 very-express, or the 0745 or 0749 also-expresses, from Croton-Harmon to Grand Central, walk to the Shuttle Passage and take the S to Times Square (around 0830), walk (nice long aerobic walk) through the underground passageways from 42nd Street Times Square (1237NQS) to 42nd Street Port Authority (ACE), take the 8th Avenue subway down to 14th Street (the express stops at Penn Station on the way, the local stops at Penn Station and at 23rd Street), go up the stairs into the old Port Authority building, wave my badge at a reader-thing, go up the elevator to the 5th floor, get breakfast, and there I am, at 0900 or a bit before.

Whew!

And during all of that, so many people, faces, eyes, briefcases, shoes, scarves and dresses, ties, suits, and the subway musicians, steel drums, cellos, saxes, opera singers with tipjars, the tables of patient Jehovah’s Witnesses giving out their little books in eight languages, the loud man declaiming how urgent it is to come to Jesus, five-by-seven shiny paper rectangles left on subway seats about Jesus or an upcoming performance of Shakespeare, the song of rails, trains pushing air down the dark tunnels, the clack of heels, voices chanting over the speakers, “please keep clear of the closing doors”, the paper “Planned Service Changes” sign where someone has supplemented the tiny black type with a big crayon arrow pointing to the left and labeled “TO QUEENS” and someone else has written underneath it “thanks”.

Ehem, I was going to be coherent. But there is so much!

As previously noted I work at Google now.

It is extremely awesome.

The extent to which I can and can’t go into detail about things is interesting in itself. IBM’s big emphasis is on getting confidential information only to those who need it, inside or outside the company. Lots of information isn’t confidential, so everyone, inside and out, is free to have it, and as an internal person if I wanted to get for instance the source code to some random other project’s product, it would have been difficult just to figure out where it was and who to ask for access, let alone actually getting approval.

Google is much more Hard Shell and Creamy Center that way; anything that hasn’t been officially published is to be kept inside, but Googlers can get to an amazing amount of stuff. Just how amazing that amount of stuff is, and what it contains, I’m not sure if I can tell you.

I can reveal that Google has more than seven machines, located in more than three datacenters that are all over the place. I cannot speculate on rumors that we have a major datacenter in the back room of every Starbucks, or that we have a radical new way of cooling datacenters using Fair Trade coffee beans.

swagFor my own part, I can definitely reveal that I’m drinking a lot less coffee than I did a few weeks ago; apparently drinking from firehoses is a good substitute, in terms of staying awake.

I can also reveal that whereas it used to take me forty-five minutes to an hour to get out of the house (or, to be brutally honest, even to get all the way out of bed) on a weekday morning, it now takes twenty at the most.

Also, there really are secret rooms behind bookcases in the library, and a slide (I went down it yesterday; twice). And of course scooters (which I will have to try some day when I am feeling brave and well-balanced).

And additionally, swag! :)

I have switched from my snazzy Fossil messenger bag (a gift from M) which is too nice for daily subway abuse, to the pictured Google backpack, which is tougher, has less sentimental value, has just as many tons of pockets (perhaps a little harder to reach into ad hoc), and distributes the weight of an iPad and macbook and assorted stuffs more symmetrically for the back. I am wearing the pictured Google tee shirt even now :) and the propeller hat is still hanging there on the corner of one of my monitors.

“One of my monitors” hee hee.

I have been like a kid on Christmas all week. Giddiness!

So, summary: work is amazing, Google is awesome, I am energized as I haven’t been in probably years. And finally I have found time to write in my weblog about it!

More posts as the situation develops… :)

2013/07/20

Avid fans of mediocre fiction

There are all sorts of fascinating things going on.

One fascinating thing is the breathtakingly rapid evolution of media of all sorts; and one fascinating part of that thing is these here “e-books” which are available “on-line”, more or less directly from the authors.

The web-site Amazon Dot Com, to pick a very notable example, has a whole ecosystem, one might say polysyllabicly, built around these essentially self-published and to a great extent disintermediated artifacts, where one can buy (or acquire, for the significant numbers that are nominally free) copies of these books (and the associated licenses to read the copies, which are enforced by one’s own computers and reading software, in an odd and facially improbable bit of co-optation), and rate them with small integers, and leave comments on them, and rate and comment on other people’s comments, and see what other books people who have purchased this one have also purchased, and so on for quite some time.

(Here is a link to this stuff, or at least a link that, at the moment, when followed by me, leads to something like the “Books” subtree of the largish “Kindle” tree, which also includes the Amazon-branded reading devices (you can also read these e-books on various other devices), and non-book things (magazines, who knows what-all) that can also be read on them.)

Not all of the e-books are all disintermediated and self-published; some number of them are also acquired and edited and published by publishing houses large and small and new and old, brought out at the same time as, or before or after, old-fashioned non-e versions of the same book, actually printed on paper in ink. These I am not talking about so much here today; there are interesting things to say about them, but to the extent that they are selected and polished and marketed in roughly the same way books were a decade or three ago, they are not, comme on dit, in my fovea at this time.

(Haha, the WordPress spell checker does not know the word “fovea”. I suggests that perhaps I mean “forgave”. Also, it scolds me for writing “WordPress” with a small “p”, even though the publishing software, obnoxiously in my opinion, automatically capitalizes that “p” for me automatically at publishing time, heh.)

So anyway, he said loquaciously, about those e-books that are all disintermediated and self-published and all.

Many of them are really badly-writen.

(This may not come as a huge surprise.)

Some of them are in fact very good. For instance I discovered by following some winding path through the Internets the Wool books by Hugh Howey (looks like the first one is available free, which is nice; I recommend it). They are books that might not have made it out of the slush pile at a publishing house (or they might have; who can tell), but eventually bubbled to my, and lots of other people’s, attention via the ecosystem of self-publishing, and are now apparently doing rather well. There are rough edges here and there (I recall something about what the protagonists’ wife was said to be doing at the start of the first book that by the end of the third it was unlikely anyone would have been allowed to do, and seemed to be from some earlier and now-abandoned version of the plotline, for instance), but no worse than in many normally-published books I’ve read.

But many of them, even most of them I would dare say, requiring for their publication only that (1) the author thinks it is good (or at least would like to publish it), and (2) the author pushes some buttons on their computer (significantly fewer buttons than it took to write it, in most cases), and therefore having successfully vaulted only a pair of very low bars, are not very good at all.

And yet some of these not-very-good-at-all books have, or appear to have, avid fans in the ecosystem, who rate them at the top of the set of possible integers, post glowing reviews comparing them favorably to all other books previously written in the genre, give “unhelpful” ratings to negative reviews posted by others, and so on.

It makes one wonder.

For instance, is the difference between Post-human, by David Simpson, rated four-and-a-half stars out of five, and Wool by Hugh Howey (linked above), also rated four-and-a-half stars out of five, just that I personally thought the latter was pretty good (my review gave it five of five stars) and the former pretty bad (my rather scathing review gave it just two)?

Once the magnetic field was in place, he was free to bolt upward, unhindered by friction, air pressure, temperature, or anything else. In seconds, he was above the stratosphere, using his mind’s eye to plot an automatic course for Venus.

I think Howey’s book is better than Simpson’s in ways that don’t come down to just my personal opinions. Simpson’s contains technology howlers about glowing green magnetic fields that allow humans to fly through space at interplanetary speeds without benefit of spaceship; Howey’s has just some rather powerful psychoactive drugs that unreliably suppress memory and alter behavior. Simpson’s has an evil antagonist with god-like powers who keeps the protagonist alive to allow him to do something he (the antagonist) would clearly have had no trouble doing all by himself. Howey’s bad guys are subtler and more realistic, and in that way more terrifyingly evil.

Simpson’s protagonist is the most intelligent person in the solar system (scientifically measured!), and everything goes right for him, pretty much all the time. Howey’s various protagonists are more ordinary people, more conflicted and confused, and when they have any triumphs at all they are partial and sometimes worrying ones.

(And nearly every time one of Simpson’s comic-book superheroes turns on the stupid all-powerful magnetic field, Simpson has to say that he “ignited” it. Drives me up the walls, I tell ya.)

I don’t want to pick on Simpson’s book in particular, really; I’m sure there are other four-and-a-half-star ebooks that are worse. But the case of Post-Human is notable for at least a couple of reasons (and here we will segue gracefully into the lazy weblogger’s device of unordered lists):

  • For awhile, Simpson was offering a free book to anyone who gave him a five-star review on Amazon (he has since apparently stopped, and I hope it was because it’s against the rules).
  • But there are still four and five star reviews being written, and many of the negative reviews also have an unusual number of “unhelpful” ratings, so that last point can’t explain the whole effect.

What now? Just a bunch of thoughts:

  • Maybe the many glowing reviews and downratings of negative ones for the Simpson book are just fake; results of bribery, or posted by Simpson himself, or by some entity hired by him (I would not be surprised if there were companies that will create shadow-puppets who will boost the Amazon rep of a book for money). It would be interesting to look at the other reviews posted by people who have given very glowing reviews of very average works.
  • Maybe only some of them are fake and/or a result of the above-mentioned bribery, and the rest are from people who wanted to get on the bandwagon, in some to-be-determined sense.
  • Maybe some of the people who accepted the Simpson bribe are experiencing that interesting psychological effect whose name I forget and have decided that (since they can’t be bribed that easily!) they really did love the book, and go around downrating negative comments just to prove it.
  • Maybe I am wrong, and the Howey book is not objectively any better than the Simpson one, and it’s just that the problems with the latter happen to bother me personally more than those with the former.
  • Maybe I am not wrong, and by my objective criteria the Simpson book really is worse, but there are a significant number of people who don’t care about those objective criteria to speak of at all, but enjoyed the book greatly for some other reasons that I don’t really understand. That is sort of an interesting thought.
  • I have a vague impression that there is sort of a whole subculture of people on the Internets who write and read and praise and advertise not-very-good books, either (see above) they have never really read a good book, or they actually prefer books that are objectively (in whatever sense) bad, or for some other reason. I recently came across a weblog reviewing some mediocre self-published Amazon ebook as “an Amazon Bestseller!”, where that phrase was apparently copied from the book’s own page on the author’s website; I was nasty and posted a polite comment pointing out that the only sense in which it was an Amazon Bestseller was that it has an Amazon Bestseller rank, which every book on Amazon appears to have, and that in this case the rank was somewhere over one million. So “best” only in the most technical of senses. Presumably, though, there is some in-crowd feeling to be had in posting a positive review of a Best Seller?

Looking at many of the glowing reviews of the Simpson book (and for that matter other books I find poorly-written), my impression is that many of the reviewers are somewhat less than literate themselves, and/or less than civil, that in particular people who leave negative comments on negative reviews and otherwise defend the books in the commentary part of the ecosystem, tend to sound like trolls (broadly construed). What sorts of things do these people have in common? What are their motivations?

And, sort of conversely, will we eventually have a system in which I can mark those people as having opinions generally Irrelevant To My Own (or even Contrary To My Own), so that the system could take this into account in its own recommendations? “This book has a 4.5 star rating, or 2.25 stars if we count only people whose opinions you are likely to care about.” Is anyone doing that yet?

And that is about the end of my thoughts on the subject for the time being. Reading over it I see that I come across as something of an elitist jerk, but when it comes to books I am rather content being an elitist jerk. :)

Good reading!

2013/06/05

So yeah the new flickr site design is awful

I’ve been a member of flickr since back when GNE closed down and many of us regulars said “eh, might as well try this free photo-sharing site that Stewart and Caterina are doing now”. It’s had roughly the same design ever since, nice and clean and well-balanced between text and graphics, with just the occasional moving of a button or adding of a new fancy feature (without removing the old version if there was one) to keep things interesting.

Until sometime last month, when they messed it all up.

flickr on blackWhich is to say, they imposed an entirely new design, with a completely different look and feel, different content emphasis, and different affordances (in the Donald Norman sense of the term, most importantly), and they did it without any warning to speak of, and (somehow!) without anticipating that at least some users would be upset by it. It was presented in the very XXth century style “here is a great new thing we have done, passive consumers, be thrilled!”, that is a total no-no in the XXIst century web world, where your customers are your collaborators, you steer by real-time user feedback and A-B testing, and so on and so on.

And I wouldn’t really mind, myself (except that they have to spend lots of time doing damage-control that they could be spending on actually making the site better), except that (speaking purely objectively of course) the new design is flippin’ awful.

It’s one of these hideous “infinitely scrolling page” things that break the Back and Reload buttons, and break performance if you scroll down too far; it hides pretty much all the text (i.e. picture titles and descriptions), suggesting that the Proper Experience on flickr is just a big mush of pictures all run up against each other as close as possible; there are individual picture controls (which are coy obscure little symbols) which appear only when you hover over a picture; when you click on a picture it takes you to a page which shows the picture big on black, and sometimes seems to show the title and description and stuff and sometimes not (I still haven’t quite figured that out yet), if you scroll downward.

Basically it’s just like those tumblr designs that I find most obscure and annoying, only without the graphics of emo album covers in the background.

One or more poor flickr schlubs has had to try to keep some order in the milling rioting crowds of protestors in the flickr forums, and one thing they did was to close the original zillion-page thread about the changes and start a new one, summarizing what they are hearing their customers say so far.

I posted a couple of replies in that thread (on like page 64), and here I am posting them here too just for grins.

So I don’t want to bring any hate or anger :) and I haven’t read all twelve million comments above, but I do find the new design offputting, confusing, hard to use, and all that. It seems to be modeled on a very common style of tumblr design that I also dislike (but at least on tumblr I can just use some different one).

On the various updates in the header:

> you want the option to see Flickr in a “classic” view


That would be a good start.

> textual information around your photos (and sets in particular) is too hidden in the new design


I’m not sure why you say “and sets in particular”; the thing I’m most upset about is that my titles and descriptions are basically completely absent from my photostream page. The titles can be seen one at a time, if you hover, but that’s a drag. And the descriptions show up randomly, as far as I can tell, if you click on the picture an even number of times and then scroll down. Or something. Wildly confusing.

I guess the idea is that pictures matter and words don’t, but that’s not an idea I agree with. I put titles and descriptions in on purpose, and I’d like them to appear, not be hidden 90% of the time.

> user’s organizational choices are limited and not surfaced enough, particularly with the Collections, Set, Photo hierarchy

Not a huge one for me.

> loading the justified, infinite scroll views are cumbersome and expensive for many with slower network connections

And also I personally *hate* infinite-scroll pages and tend to avoid any site that has them. They break the “back” button, they break the “reload” button, etc, etc.

> you want more customizability of content and layout in your photostream and home page



Yes. Obviously you have some designers who have real strong opinions about what everyone’s flickr page should look like, and obviously many of your users don’t agree with those opinions. Telling all those users that they are out of luck and they just have to go along with designer-of-the-day’s opinion-of-the-day is not going to help your bottom line.

tumblr is very customizable. wordpress is quite customizable. That’s the standard now. If flickr is for some reason not going to be customizable, it will die. And I think that would be sad!

And then…

Oh yeah, and I would also like my homepage to not feature some random HUGE picture from some random contact. The results can be… startling…

… because they really can. I mean, eeek! :)

2013/03/08

Salon covers the Mystery Infographics!

Just a quick jubilant note to say that Andrew Leonard at Salon has up a piece on the mysterious Tony Shin / QuinStreet infographic spams that we have covered lovingly in the past.

And apparently there was another piece the other day about the “request for link removal” things that I also talked about recently.

And I’m sure when I have a chance to read them, they will be interesting!

Here is a picture of a bird eating a fish or something:

Kingfisher_6611

Update: zomg the Salon piece actually links to us. W00t!

2013/03/03

Days of splines and toeses

So in the morning when I wake up I am vaguely surprised to find that once again I am in the same bed and the same room, the same universe, as when I went to sleep.

’cause it seems like a big coincidence!

But, it occurs to me, that’s not necessarily what’s happening; memory is just as unmoored as immediate experience.

Maybe tomorrow morning I will wake up in my nest, surrounded by M and our other flock-group members, curled up in our diaphanous salmon-colored leaves, stretch and yawn, attach the platinum blades to my hind set of legs in case of hungry sleet-flies en route, and fly off to work, thinking all the while that it’s funny I’ve woken up yet again in the same nest, in the same mile-high tree, that I went to sleep in last night.

The King’s Country, as the royal precincts with their streets and shops and storehouses have come to be called over the paranoid years, is saturated with security, and eye-patches.

In order to present a disadvantage to anyone who might mean ill toward the monarch, anyone entering is given a tight black eye-patch, and must wear it over one eye as long as they remain within the walls.

A one-eyed man came to the Gate to King’s Country one autumn afternoon, upon a commission to repair a water-wheel. He assumed that, already equipped with an eye-patch, and more importantly a non-functional eye, the rule would have no effect on him.

But, due to zeal in defense of the sovereign, or perhaps certain reservations about the cut of the mechanic’s clothes, the Sergeant of the Gate declared that, in order to present a disadvantage as intended, the patch would have to be worn over the newcomer’s good eye, not the bad one.

Appeal to the Chief of the Guard did no good.

So, in the country of the King, the one-eyed man is blind.

(That was the easy case, I think, mundane and cloudy. One could as well have done “In the country of the King, the blind man has one eye”, which might have been about how the monarch’s deity-infused aura provides sight to the sightless, or alternately “In the country of the one-eyed, the blind man is King”, which might have taken more thought.)

And there was some third thing that I was going to write down, and that in fact is the thing that got me to open up this computer and start writing in the weblog here, but at the moment I have entirely forgotten it (phah!) so I will just say that I have been playing Real Racing 3 on the iPad here, and it is fun. And the graphics are woot good heavens! Right now I am working on upgrading my second car, a BMW M3 Coupe which I have “resprayed” all shiny red:

Real Racing 3 cars

That’s my first car, a now-fully-upgraded Nissan Silvia S15, behind it.

The In-App Purchases have not annoyed me, or tempted me, yet (unlike in certain other pad games).

Vroom vroom!