Friday, May 30, 2008

From Hawaii

Here I am in Hawaii posting a short message from my BlackBerry... Not that much to write about yet. Hawaii doesn't seem as impressive as I was expecting. I'm at Waikiki Beach in Oahu and it just feels like a small but well developed beach city. Things are not so clean, people are not very educated, but the scenery is nice if you are looking the right way.

Anyway posting from a BlackBerry is annoying, so I'll just go and enjoy the nightlife, which really somehow exists here!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Another late-night blogging. I was reading and replying to emails today and, although I've started reasonably early (about 11:15 PM), it's already 12:45 AM! Time flies when you are trying to write useful emails, huh?

Anyway, this post is not about writing emails, or my lack of ability to write emails quickly, but about my second experience looking at

I have to start by saying that the project itself is great. I'm always excited about open content anything that leverages information that exists out there (book catalogs) and tries to add less structured content on top of it. Apart from all that, what I find interesting about this website is actually its problems: finding anything!

Their goal is to have a page of every single book ever published. Which means, multiple pages for books that have been republished multiple times. And so far with no concept of "work" that would group those books together. To exemplify where the problem is, I decided to do a search on all their catalog and see if I could randomly come across a book that had not only the library card part, but also contents. For that I needed a book that has been around for long enough that it would be in public domain. The book that came to mind was Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" (don't ask me why).

So I started by searching "a tale of two cities"... Terrible mistake. Received 26 results. On the first 20 results, only 1 said it was written by Charles Dickens:

Dicken's A tale of two cities by Dickens, Charles
(American book company, 1911)

I found odd. So I clicked on the author. I was then sent to the page of the author and all the books. No counts of the total number of books there, but I found 12 in the first 10 pages. Not grouped at all, so I had to look page by page and find the book (and note that for some reason Firefox didn't like the page and when searching it would only find the first occurrence of the words and then be stuck there).

It was time-consuming and yielded no scanned versions. Yes, it's still a beta site, but apparently they still have a long way to go there before I can say that I'll start using it for something.

I re-found this website after listening to this week's TWiT. Brewster Kahle was there to talk about the Internet Archive and mentioned this website he was working on building. What I found nice is the apparent motto behind the internet archive: "Children today are being educated on the internet. However, the internet today does not contain the quality that you were able to find on books of the past. So we are just not providing them with the opportunity of a high quality education." Very interesting point.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Random links for the day

I've spent some time trying to think of a theme for this post, but couldn't find any. I was just reading news around and came across the following articles that were quite odd in some ways:

The Miracle Fruit, a Tease for the Taste Buds: Interesting and well-known fruit from West Africa that makes acidic things taste sweet. It certainly changes the taste of a lot of things. I'm now very curious to check it out...

A tragedy: New Challenge for Space Station Crew - A Broken Toilet. This reminds me of some research I saw a long time ago on rapid prototyping. they claimed it's the only possible solution to longer-term space travel, because you never know what is going to break, so you can't keep spare parts for everything. Thus, they need some technology to just build the part you need. The only problem of the technology last I saw it was materials. The only reasonable materials they were able to use for rapid prototyping was a type of paper and a type of waxy glue. None of them are very good for things that are supposed to be used in real-life. Oh, well... At least the space station is not that far, so people can send things over to them.

Finally, it seems like everybody is behind multi-touch:

Windows 7 will be multi-touch capable: I don't trust Windows any more, so I'm not really concerned.

OLPC XO-2 to include multitouch and possibly haptic screen from PixelQi: This is actually pretty cool if it's not vaporware. Have to remember to keep an eye for this one. Much more interesting than the recording pen!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Playing with ideas

I was going around today playing with Exploratree... It's a project that has been around for some time now (since sometime at the end of last year). It's quite neat in its goal of creating frameworks in which you can organize your thoughts and plans. It's focused on educational use, so that you can actually ask people to add information and then you see this on the web.

The UI is quite slick. Quite interesting to see what people can do with Flash on a browser. However, it's kind of annoying in many ways too. For example, I tend to be a little too verbose on what I write on each entry and it doesn't really try to resize and text-wrap things for me. So I end up spending most of my time actually trying to make the text fit in the places. Also it doesn't seem to be a model behind the UI. So if there are two elements that are supposed to have the same text, you have to enter the text twice.

Oh, well... It's an interesting idea anyway. I wished I could see somebody using it for real, and not only the fishy demos on the site.

And talking about education-oriented products, I was also looking at Livescribe's Pulse. It's a product that I've seen an ad for a long time ago, but apparently now it's for real. Nice concept, but I'm a little worried when they show that the only use that they have thought about right now is taking notes of classes and then referring back to the audio that was going on during the notes by clicking on the notes. Not a bad idea at all!

However, there should be some other things that this pen should be able to do... It can't be used to digitize things that are written on a whiteboard or something like that, because it needs the special paper with special location dots. So that restricts the interaction to something quite "private". Maybe if it could be used to write music or something... Or when you are trying to review something that somebody wrote and you are one of those people that need it printed, you can print with the dots, review and then digitize the review of the paper to send it back to the writer.

Anyway, it's a cool technology. If I could find a half use case for the things I do right now I would have already ordered one. So I'll keep looking!

Labeling images for Google

I was given a link the other day to Google's new image labeler:

What is interesting about it is that everything is done in pairs and then the pair is given images to label and points for how many labels they can come up with, more points for more specific labels.

Then what do you do with all those points? What do you get from being on Google's website and say that you have "24300260 points"? Not much, but there is a lot of evidence out that that some people might just have too much time in their hands. Better to ask them to do these things than them being out and about playing with friends, don't you agree?

Anyway, that's not the reason why I've decided to post this here. What I found interesting is the names of the people that I saw on the "today's top pairs" section. I'm not too worried about pasting them here because they are quite anonymous:

1. Wonderful Now 3K - mY record 2980
2. BSPECIFIC - Me 2 GottaGoNow 2880
3. Me 2 GottaGoNow - Lds Labelmaker 2620
4. guest - guest 1950
5. Monster - DoubleDogsRacing 1790

They seem like people use names to communicate their intentions with other labelers. Like "BSPECIFIC" or "Wonderful Now 3K". Also there are some that look like an automated system: "Lds Labelmaker", which might relate to the Low Density
Separation algorithm [1] or maybe Limited Discrepancy Search [2], or maybe it's somebody from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints... Who knows?

The fact is that eventually Google will figure it out and decide if their little points-giving experiment will help or hurt their image search. I bet on the latter. I actually bet that just adding humans to the loop will not really help you in general. but might provide enough test data to then add an automated method and have an idea of how well it's doing.

[1] - Chapelle O., Zien A., (2005). Semi-Supervised Classification by Low Density Separation, 10th International Workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Statistics, AI STATS 2005, Barbados]
[2] - L.D. Whitley, A.E. Howe, S. Rana, J.-P. Watson, and L. Barbulescu. (1998) "Comparing Heuristic Search Methods and Genetic Algorithms for Warehouse Scheduling." In Systems, Man and Cybernetics, 1998.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On writing

Hah! I should have read this before:

Blogging -- It's Good for You

The article itself is not very scientific in some parts. It relates to the study that says that writing is good only if you are writing about a bad experience, but bad if you aren't (also from Scientific American, but you'll need to pay for it to read it - appeared on Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007), but it seems like they don't seem to reference it for some reason. If SciAm was a scientific journal, the editor wouldn't allow this to happen.

Independent on missing references, it's still an interesting reason to convince people to write! Maybe:

"[...] blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art."

Ah... I feel so much better right now! :-)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Playing with

I've received a beta account for [true knowledge] and decided to play with it a little. So far it's been interesting (although I can't say I've done much yet). Here is what I've done so far (I'm not adding any exact quotes here, just an idea)

My first question: "What is Earth's diameter?"

Answer: "Question understood, but the object that was recognized is not a circle: Earth, third planet in the solar system; Earth, the location of everything in this planet. Do you want to add a circle?"

Odd... Can't spheres have diameters? And yes, Earth is not a sphere, but people still have references to the diameter of the Earth. But, instead of trying to enter data on this debatable subject, I decided to simplify it:

"What is the diameter of a tennis ball?"

Answer: "There was an error processing the question."


"What is a tennis ball's diameter?"

Answer: "I don't understand what a tennis ball is, but it must be a circle or a sphere. Do you want to enter a tennis ball?"

I decided then to do it and it goes through asking you to write:

1) a short description of it to disambiguate the term for a human reader,
2) the plural of the term and the short description,
3) write synonyms of the term (I couldn't figure out synonyms for tennis ball),
4) A parent class (sphere? I tried ball, but they suggested sphere),
5) Questions of whether the "tennis ball" class is disjoint with other sphere children which I found quite interesting, but not as interesting as what came next
6) Is a sphere something intrinsic of an item, or something that an item can become and cease to be?

Very interesting set of questions. The sad thing is that when I finish all this, it forwards me back to my question and the answer is still the same: "I don't know what a tennis ball is". The classic UI problem of how to make users feel like they contributed with something by seeing what they did directly affect their experience, or clearly state that it might take some time to do so. Negative points here.

Anyway, I'll continue playing around and maybe I'll document more if I find something interesting. It's quite nice and disturbing the amount of projects out there hoping to leverage people to build structured data. Why can't they just collaborate with each other and specialize on answering the types of questions that they care about? Maybe they can even have different ways of you entering data, but it would be so much easier if they could just add this information to somewhere like freebase while they are at it!

Yes, I do feel guilty for choosing sides, so I'll add information about tennis balls in freebase too. The problem on freebase is that now I have to decide whether I call a tennis ball a ball and assume all balls are spheres (so have diameters) or consider a football a ball too and so there should be spheric balls and oblong/ovoid balls. ARGH!

Saturday, May 17, 2008


I want one of these:

VIDEO: Rocket Man Makes Debut Flight

Or maybe not... Crazy idea, but we need some crazy people out there to keep us entertained while we are sitting safely in our houses.

HTML escaping bugs

Yes, I know I mentioned that this was going to be a personal blog only. But this is actually something I consider personal: my own annoyances about things, including technology. So here we go (it's actually funny):

I thought that I had already posted this, but couldn't find it anywhere. So I'll assume it's one of the eternal drafts that should be around somewhere.

If you go to Google Reader and you have a feed that has some HTML-escapable character, and then you try to edit the name of the feed, you get some very interesting effects. I found this out because when Google Reader imports the feed name, it escapes it, even when the name is html-friendly and already escaped. Here is an example, I decided to import "NYT > Home Page" feed. When I imported it, This is what I've seen on my feeds:

"NYT > Home Page"

Then when I click on "rename..." I see:

"NYT > Home Page"

If I just click "save" and don't do anything else, I get exactly what was in the edit box. Then I click on "rename..." again and, as expected, I see:

"NYT &gt Home Page"

Hilarious! And what is more hilarious is that I need to double escape my text so that you can see the problem. How I love HTML! NOT!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Me and my blogging hiatus

From time to time it seems like I can't finish a post. I start accumulating drafts, but can never finish them. Now it seems one more of those times. So I'll try to keep this one short, hoping that I'll finish it.

First on life status: I've been thirty for a week now, and I can still feel that my back is starting to hurt more, my hair is getting whiter, I'm getting crankier... Yes, I'm getting old.

Yesterday Amy and I went to see Cirque du Soleil - Corteo. It was not an inexpensive way of spending Thursday evening, but it was quite impressive. They certainly do a good show. It's funny that they try to have a storyline and... well, it's just a way frame the show and doesn't really define it. Kind of a strange way of using a theme.

This weekend there is the Seattle Cheese Festival to go. I went last year and it wasn't that interesting, but I got to try a couple of nice cheeses. And it takes me to the Pike Place market, which is never a bad thing. I've been there twice in the last month already with all the visitors I've been getting here.

Oh, yes, I probably never blogged about my visitors, huh? Well, it all started with my aunt coming here to visit me and staying for 5 days. Then, last weekend, as a surprise birthday gift for me, two of my best friends came to visit and spend the weekend here (with wife and 8 1/2-month old daughter). It's always great to receive visitors, even without much planning ahead of time.

Alright, I should stop here or else I'll end up leaving this in my drafts again and never sending it out.

I've decided that this blog will be focused on personal stuff from now on. I'll create a new blog for non-personal stuff. Will let people know when it's ready.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Accidental Time Machine & a little Sicko

Last weekend I finished reading another book that actually took me about 5 days to read: The Accidental Time Machine by by Joe Haldeman.

In general I'm not a big fan of "light sci-fi" books that you can read easily like this one, but there were two points on the book that I found interesting. But first for a short synopsis, trying not to spoil much: this student from MIT accidentally builds a time machine that only moves to the future and decides to use it to travel. That's it.

So, what is interesting about it? Well, he goes about 200 years in the future and ends up in a corner of the US that has become deeply religious, organized by a president that invented that Jesus came back and went to speak to him. Technology was abandoned (except to make Jesus look real) and everybody stopped really studying anything except religion.

Then he moves another 2,000 years in the future and ends up in a society that has become fully immersed in technology in which they don't do anything any more except for merchandise trading. All development and research was done by computers. Everything in the city was controlled by one major computer.

In both futures there was a common theme: humans in the future decide to stop learning. They converge into a society that has other things that decide for them: religion or technology. I found it kind of funny, but it doesn't feel too far off. I think we will always have people thinking and inventing things. But maybe this elite will just continue to shrink worldwide until they are stuck in some island by themselves, while the whole rest of the world enjoys "eternal mental vacations". How exciting!

Anyway, I've also finally watched "Sicko" yesterday. It was interesting. I've posted most of my concerns about how broken the US health system is, so I won't repeat myself. However, I do think that he missed two very important points (well, most probably many of them, but I'll cite two):

1) There is a reason why many companies in the world decided to move away from France. The social cost of having employees there is just too big to make it worth it.
2) He never mentioned my greatest pet peeve about American health culture: Americans, with poor education, go to the doctor thinking that they know better what they need than the doctor. They only go there because they can't give themselves a prescription. And then some people complain that sometimes doctors don't really pay attention to what patients have and only push drugs to them... Well, that's what their patients are expecting them to do anyway.

Anyway, I think that's all I have to say. Time to go to bed.