Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cutting 10 zeros?

This article today kind of shocked me: Zumbabwe knocks 10 zeros off currency. 10 zeros??? How can somebody have a currency in which you have to deal with such large numbers. Certainly an inflation rate somewhere in between 2.2 million and 12.5 million percent (according to this article at MSNBC) can do something like that really quickly. I kind of vaguely remember the hyperinflation period in Brazil and basically you get two things:

1) Banks become very important and need to make things move quickly. That's why the banking system in Brazil right now is so good (compared to here in the US).
2) You just don't keep money laying around. Every minute that you have cash you are losing money. So there were rushes to stores and banks during payment days. And everything would get even more complicated when there were all the plans to freeze prices and such. Life was not fun.

But this was many orders of magnitude lower than Zimbabwe. I can't think that anybody there can use money. As the bills get out of the press, they are pretty much not worth the paper that was used to make them. Yikes! It saddens me to even think of life there...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Technology demos - sometimes not very impressive

The last couple of days I've seen a few demos of potentially interesting technology that when you get to it they are just not there yet. One I mentioned on my last post, so I decided to increase the list:

The first one, as most people are already talking a lot about, is Cuil. There are lots of articles about it out there, so I won't write much besides saying that it's quite impressively fast, but relevance is worse even than MSN Search on its early days (and that's a hard thing to beat).

Then, going to a whole different type of technology, there is the Martin Jetpack. It claims to be able to run for 30 minutes and get to 8K feet, but the demo is underwhelming: a guy with a big thing on his back making a lot of noise and then two guys around him guiding him around hovering a couple of feet off the ground. A few balloons and a lawn chair seem way more efficient.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Twine and OpenLink

I've played around with Twine for some time and then for some reasons that I will eventually try to summarize, I've stopped paying much attention to it. I still receive the daily digests from the twines that I follow and do skim over them, but in general haven't found a real reason to do any switching over. I'm a little addicted to having the bookmarks on my Firefox and be able to quickly find what I'm looking for by using ctrl+b or APPLE+b and typing a keyword. Twine only offers something like that if I get to their website first.

But, anyway, as I said, I'll get to an analysis of Twine some other day. Right now I'm going to just make this observation hoping that I'll have somebody solve this for me. I was reading Kingsley Idehen's blog post about Twine and OpenLink and it referenced the ability to navigate Twine through the relationships that it adds to the pages.

It sounded interesting so I downloaded OpenLink for Firefox (which required me to create an account with Firefox Add-ons) and gave it a try... And then started the head-scratching. Lots of options that don't seem to do anything (like the relationships on the popup from the storage URI section) and things that don't seem to work until you click twice on them. But once you got used to clicking around, there is some information there. Not organized enough, in my opinion, but it's probably a good start. If you have some organization it will highlight better what isn't organized correctly.

But the question that remains for me is: is this what is missing? Should this be the next browser experience? I don't get it yet, but it might be more because of clunkiness of interface and some improvements in the data. It's a way of looking at information, but it's just not fluid enough. Not all interactions can have a real grouping that is not themselves. And if something is only grouped with itself, what is the use of grouping?

Anyway, it was an interesting experiment anyway. Now back to something more productive. Not mowing weeds (which was part of today's entertainment)...

Mistakes cities make

When you have too much money to spend, as do bigger cities like Seattle, you are bound to make very expensive mistakes. The latest one to make to the news here is the great "high-tech" toilets that now the city is trying to auction off through eBay, but hasn't been able to find people that are crazy enough to pay 90 thousand dollars on it. Ok, I actually should be a little bit more precise in saying that it's not the city that is using eBay, but a contractor for the city that is specialized on getting rid of surplus equipment.

They are quite expensive toilet to maintain: something like US$360 a day (according to this other article on the Seattle Times). And, well, they are a public "safe and clean" place, so they attract illicit activities, like drug dealing and use, and apparently prostitution. Think that there are only 5 installed in the whole city!

Anyway, they will be gone and the 332 people that use it every day will have to go somewhere else. Perhaps to some US$16 a day port-a-potty.

And yes, this is the level of concerns that I have lately. Actually I'll have to say that lately I've been trying to work more on interesting projects at home and I think I'm close to something quite fun that uses FreeBase. I've subscribed to their modeling mailing list and that has made me excited about paying more attention to what is going on there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Getting people to do things for free

I read this interesting article on TechCrunch:

We Want A Dead Simple Web Tablet for $200. Help Us build it

Simple thoughts and reasons and then you look at the reaction of people claiming they want to help. The pattern I found that is very interesting is people saying that they can code anything in a set of languages that usually starts with PHP. So sad that there are so many PHP coders out there. It's a very weak language with powerful libraries, in my opinion. But I'm not here to get into PHP. Back to the analysis of the people that respond to this article.

The response has been pretty huge. Lots of people got easily excited about the project: a cheap computer that does 80% of what you usually do on the internet. It won't help on making me blog more often or actually write emails to my friends, but it certainly would be a great piece of technology. People can see it, but they can't really see the actual complexity of the problem. You find comments like:

"College student will help with writing the marketing aspect." - huh?

"Wow, this sounds like an awesome idea. I’d love to contribute in some way, I have lots of education contacts and some limited coding expertise. Maybe my biggest asset is enthusiasm and time? Contact me if I can help."

"Finally! I can help promote this in and bring it to Canada. Let me know if you’re interested - I am!"

"I would be happy to contribute my companies resources and expertise to the project." - and this guy has a web hosting company

There are too many other hilarious things to quote.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Odd watch brand

Those are things that I find out because part of my work is to look at the items that are part of the Amazon's catalog:

01 The One

Definitely a geeky watch brand, but a non-geeky website. Odd combination.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Show me your ads and...

I was looking at an address in Seattle on MapQuest today (yes, I do still use it from time to time), and I was shocked by the ads that I was offered. They all come from Google's adsense: out of 10 textual ads (yes, quite amazing how much they can cram on that page), 4 were for DUI attorneys, 2 for life insurance, 2 for job search, 1 for a DJ and the last one for a florist. Getting ads for DUI stuff when you are looking around for driving directions gives quite a negative feeling about driving. Probably not what MapQuest would have chosen if they were given a choice.

That's the inherent problem around any algorithm-based advertising (if not almost any computer-generated prediction). It's very hard to encode and take into account psychological reactions to things. It's much easier to just consider the financial correlation. If (I'm inflating the numbers here a couple of orders of magnitude) you put an ad (A) that will make 10% of the people click on it (out of confusion and disgust) and 50% never come back to the website and another ad (B) that only 8% click on it (which let's say is the average click-through rate on ads - again, this number is a couple of orders of magnitude off), it's easy to build an algorithm that will tell that A is better than B, but very hard to tell that B is better than A. It takes some time until you realize that there is a traffic reduction going on due to showing ad A.

Anyway, I'm probably going to be back to MapQuest. I keep rotating around the map provider I use not to miss new features and to make sure that I can appreciate all of them better.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The oddities of seeing past snapshots of the world

Actually the title of this post is a little misleading. I'm really talking about looking at the US stock market. I'm not a big investor at all, so I don't keep track of what is going on throughout the day. However, I'm subscribed to MarketWatch's bulletin and when I get home I read all the "spam" that I receive from them. It's quite amusing just to look at the headlines. Here is an example for today:

7/15/2008 9:52:14 AM - Dow industrials down triple digits; AIG, B. of A., J.P. Morgan biggest decliners
7/15/2008 11:14:22 AM - Crude oil slides more than $8 to trade below $140 a barrel
7/15/2008 12:33:12 PM - Nasdaq and Dow erase steep declines, turning modestly positive
7/15/2008 3:00:00 PM - Crude oil loses nearly $7 in biggest one-day drop in 17 years
7/15/2008 4:03:29 PM - Dow industrials drop nearly 100 points, with AIG, B. of A. pacing slide

What a roller coaster! And It's been like this almost every day for many weeks now. I don't know how people that actually get their sustenance out of this can keep their sanity!

Yes, I do have money in the stock market. Mostly funds, many through a retirement account. It's kind of depressing to see how their are doing right now. They are not doing terribly, but pretty much everything is in the red compared to some months ago. So I don't look. I'm not planning on needing the money any time soon.