Wednesday, October 15, 2008

When work ruins fun

No, this is not going to be a post about working too much and not having time to have fun. This is about how working on something sometimes can change your perception of things around you and highlight problems, reducing the ability for me to enjoy reality.

Here is today's example: I was looking at MyThings to understand what they were really trying to provide you as incentives to cataloging everything you own and purchase in their systems. So I decided to list the first thing that I saw in front of me: my printer, an HP Photosmart C6180 All-in-One. So I started typing "Hp Photosmart C6180" and using the great auto-complete I've received the following suggestions:

hp photosmart c6180 hewlett-packard
hp photosmart c6180 all-in-one

What is the difference? Uhm... So I picked up the first one. And that's when I had an even nicer "surprise". They give me a list of products to choose that match "hp photosmart c6180 hewlett-packard":

1) Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart C6180 All-in-One
2) Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart C6180 All-in-One
3) Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart C6180 All-in-One

Two pages of it (about 18 options). All with the same title, the same specs, and two different images. All in the category "Other Electronics", which is a great category name. Finally, on the left there is a summary of how many per category were found and it shows:

Other Electronics (17)

And nothing else. So what is the categorization of the 18th product? No clue... they all look the same, so it's hard to figure out what doesn't show on their category count.

Most people wouldn't be bothered by those kinds of things. However, because improving an online retail catalog is my job, it killed my whole experience with the website and I decided to stop playing around with it, write this blog post and go to bed. I'm sure there are some great ideas on the website, and hopefully one day I will get back to it, but right now it's just too sad to see something like this.

Anyway, it's Wednesday now... Less than three days from now I'll be on an airplane heading home to Brazil. I don't know why, I'm actually a little nervous with this trip. Probably because I haven't planned much this time. It's going to be short with a lot of wedding-related events, so I didn't want to be just running around while I'm there. Oh, well... Let's see what happens.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Up earlier... What to do?

Yesterday during house cleaning apparently somebody readjusted my alarm clock (which is a terrible piece of engineering, by the way, but I won't get to it here) and changed the time in such way that instead of waking me up at 6:15 AM as normal, it woke me up at 5:35 AM. As I didn't know of it until I got to my computer to read the morning emails and news, now I can't really get back to bed any more.

So suddenly my day was given extra 40 minutes... What to do with them?

Well, first I tried to find more information about Siri, a start-up with a good amount of AI big names, all that worked in SRI's big CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) project. It is arguably the largest AI project ever built with funding from DARPA.

Unfortunately there isn't much out there, just that they raised US$ 8.5 million and don't want to say what they are really about. ReadWriteWeb has some observations, but still not that helpful. I did sign up for the private Beta and will see what happens whenever they decide to launch.

Everybody should be skeptical about AI-focused applications, but they do have a strong team of people and experience. Judging from the "paper trail" that the CALO project generated, there could be something to it. I think it's a great concept to (and now I'm projecting a concept to their product, which could be completely off) instead of trying to build a search engine, to build a layer on top of the web (so that integrates search engines and specific websites) that tries to guide you to the information you are looking for, instead of forcing you to be search-savvy, i.e., find out by yourself which search keywords will actually take you closer to the information you are looking for.

Again, I'll wait and see... While I'm waiting, I can do the most time-consuming thing (and get rid of my extra 40-minutes): go through the CALO papers...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Starting again... but so many things to do

So the whole Jewish New Year event is over. It's actually my favorite Jewish Holiday actually mostly because I like reasons to stop and reflect on what happened with the past and plan the future. It's actually an interesting time to plan the future as in a week I'll be "celebrating" 4 years working at Amazon. And I like to think of things in 4 year cycles.

So, what is my plan for the next 4 years, you ask... But I won't answer it here. I'll have to say that I don't really have a real plan yet. Economic situations are being an influence on the lack of a real plan, as well as the many things I have to think right now. First, and foremost, my imminent trip to Brazil in less than a week. With all the things happening right now, I didn't have much time to think about what I need for this trip. I haven't bought any presents, only a few of the requests that I've collected... I'm pretty much utterly unprepared this time.

It's going to be a short trip. Only two weeks out, meaning only 12 days in Brazil with the couple of days lost in transit. Technically two weddings to go (same people, but first in the civil wedding and then the religious wedding), plus a big party. That leaves only about 8 days left that I can do something about. And with my lack of thought to plan anything, I think I'll end up not doing much. We'll see.

What else is going on? Many other things, but I won't bore anybody with details. Some parts of work (when I'm not out for high holidays) have been interesting. I could claim that in the last week I've made Amazon something like 60 cents! So exciting! I should ask for a pay raise! :-)

And I think that's what I have to say. Back to seeing how odd things happen when you have way too much visibility on what people are doing, even when they shouldn't be doing much. Wouldn't it be funny if Michael Arrington is right and "the video video will always be associated with the end of Web 2.0". Not that I believe it's true, but humorous nevertheless.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Saltpetre + stock market today

I was asked to take saltpetre home. That's the description for one of the offers on Amazon:

For women who do not want their partners to have outside relationships. Also for exorcisms & other purification rites.

I guess I'm not asking for details about why they want it... (btw: it's supposed to be for cooking)

Also, today looking at my daily emails from MarketWatch, this is how you want to wake up to the market:

6:36 AM: U.S. stock indexes open more than 2% lower in opening minute of trading
7:09 AM: Dow industrials break below 10,000 mark; Nasdaq composite plunges 4%
7:33 AM: Dow industrials down 400 points
7:47 AM: Dow industrials down 500 points

And I'm sure it's only going to get better throughout the day.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Funny things about Twitter

If you don't know what Twitter is you are probably living in an alternate universe. But, although it's been pretty big for some time now, it feels like people don't really know how to use it correctly. It started out very simple: I create a network of friends and people can send short messages through their cellphone or online to say what they were doing now. This way people can quickly organize themselves and know what their friends were doing.

But then it turned into a "stalker" type environment: there is this set of people that I'm interested in and I follow them to know what they are thinking. On the other side, I want to advertise myself to my "stalkers" (or fans if you want to put a positive twist to it) and keep them thinking that I'm a good person.

The problem in my opinion with this new reason for twitter is that it's not that good at that. It centralizes everything into one platform that allows you to have only 140 characters to send out your message. So it becomes a world of sending links around that is very hard to index and organize. And if you want to keep an eye to what is going on, you have to be online all the time and reading a lot of things (that are now linked around and not there for you to filter based on the text).

Then what happens when you have a tool that people can't really find a perfect use for but lots of people are using it? Well, you start experimenting! People start using it to try to promote themselves by starting to follow somebody, which will make this person look at what you have and decide if they are going to follow you or not. That's what happened today when I was followed by masstransitnow, a political temporary twitter account that is trying to pass some proposition to increase the amount of money sent to mass transit in the greater Seattle area.

There are others, like comcastcares that tries to use twitter to solve customer problems with Comcast.

Does this type of thing work? Well, it's not a great way of sending good content to people, but it's a cheap way of getting your name out there and getting a couple of hundred people to know that you exist. The numbers are completely meaningless for most of those applications (what would 200 extra votes do to a proposition being selected in a place like the whole state of Washington?), but it's easy and free. You only need 140 characters a day and people will keep you in mind.

So back to my personal experience: do I use twitter for anything useful? Actually no. I end up writing less because things that I want to write are too long to twitter about, but because I first try using twitter, I feel like in order for me to post it on this blog it needs to be more in-depth, which usually means that it just never gets written.

I'm actually amazed that I was able to finish this post... Before 2 AM!

Friday, October 03, 2008

First concert of the season

So my first Seattle Symphony concert for the 2008-2009 season has finally arrived and it was quite good. The only kind of depressing thing is that the concert hall was quite empty. Usually it's between 80-90% capacity (at least as far as I can see), and today it was at about 60%. Maybe too many people wanting to watch the VP debate. Who knows? Anyway, they missed a great concert. Three pieces:

1. Stephen Albert's "Anthems and Processionals"
2. Dmitri Shostakovich's "Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107" with Lynn Harrell playing the cello
3. Richard Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben", with Maria Larinoff playing the violin solo (she is the first violin for the Symphony, not an invited guest)

In general it was great. Albert's piece was an American premiere of the revised version, which brings me to a puzzling concept: Stephen Albert died on a car accident in 1992. He was a composer in residence for the Seattle Symphony and the Symphony did its world premiere in 1988 (somewhere in the program it said it was in 1998, which made it more puzzling, but it was most probably a typo). Just after the premiere, he started working on the revised edition. And only this year they finally played the revised edition. At least 16 years after it was written (probably closer to 20 years). A long time to leave a piece in the drawer.

Nice piece, though. I did overhear some people saying that it was a piece for the MTV generation, because something happened on it every 20 seconds, but I wasn't able to remember it enough to confirm it. In any way, I should look into more things from this composer.

The rest was also great, but not new. The Shostakovich is a very hard piece to perform, but it was performed amazingly well. Not perfect, but, hey, I wouldn't want to be the one playing it. The Strauss had amazing energy. This is an example of a composer that is able to use a huge orchestra and build something that doesn't sound just like a mass of noise. Or one big chord. Genius!

Alright, I should stop writing emails and posting on my blog and go to bed.

Oh, I just wanted to add that my day today started very interestingly: with a bus on fire inside the bus tunnel just by work. Not terrorist attack type of fire, just the engine apparently overheated or something and had actual flames coming out of it. I wished I had the energy to take a picture with my camera so that I could have posted it here for the curious. I was already thinking about all the things I had to do at work, so I decided to just move on.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A TV addict? Me?

It's kind of odd right now that I'm actually watching something like 4 series:

1) House: yes, I know I'm kind of tired of always about the same thing over and over again, but it's entertaining sometimes.
2) Fringe: a brand new series with 4 episodes so far, maybe 5. It's kind of an X-Files with a little more emphasis on technology and less on aliens or the government trying to hide things from us. I've been quite happy with the results so far
3) Terminator: Sarah Connors Chronicle: Ok, this one I'm a little embarrassed to say that I've been watching. It's really not a good series, but I think it's a little bit of being old and remembering watching the movies.
4) True Blood: I'm not sure yet if I like this series. The acting is pretty bad, but there are some interesting oddities to it. If I fast-forward through all those sex scenes, it has been watchable. But it's in the fringe of derailing to "vampires are evil and let's kill them all" type of thing. If it does, I guess it's going to come out of my list.

I'm waiting for another couple of episodes of "Knight Rider" to really consider this series trash. There is also a new potentially ok SciFi channel series starting this Friday, Sanctuary. It looks trashy, but, well, I'll have to find some time to have a look. One good think about most of those series is that they only have new episodes every other week, so it allows me to have time to watch them spread out through a couple of weeks. The beauty of a DVR and Hulu.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Odd idea for today:

This is an odd idea:

For $2 you can send a something measuring 0.4 x 0.4 inches (that is 1 cm x 1 cm, pretty small) to space. Aren't you excited about it? Hello? Anybody there?

Anyway, it's only $2, so it's not that it's a huge investment for something so meaningless. People spend more meaningless money out there, like paying to send small digital gifts to people on Facebook, or paying taxes so that companies that make bad decisions in what to invest can get out of it for free... I could make this a long list, but I won't bore you with my list. Just think about last month's expenses and all the things that you could have lived without. I'll assure it's way more than $2.