Monday, March 30, 2009

They finally caught up with my idea

If I don't do it, somebody finally will... Meet Demy - The Digital Recipe Reader

I don't know much about it yet, besides a very short article on engadget, so I won't comment on it yet. But I did sign up to be told when it's available and this is the message that I've received:

Not a good sign. But let's wait and see.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Green Festival, garden, chainsaw, work, babies, eve online... All things!

I always have a hard time to decide if I should write a title to a post before or after the post itself. In general I try to do it before to restrict the contents of the post, but what it does is that it ends up being out of sync with it. So today I decided to just add everything in the title and see what I can cover in the post. If some things are not mentioned, oh, well... Just know that they are important somehow to my current mental state.

Starting with yesterday: we went to the Green Festival mostly because we've received a free admission by shopping at PCC. It was interesting. There were about 4 types of groups represented: home improvements (solar panels and windows being the most common), green associations (like some sustainable neighborhood groups), organic/natural food sources (with lots of things to try - with an very large amount of teas, actually), and natural clothing/diapers/beauty stuff. There were also a few other things, like the Rachel Corrie Foundation with tasting of Palestinian olive oil and Za'atar (but they weren't there for the food).

In general, the festival wasn't terrible, but it wasn't that exciting either. Maybe it would have been better if we actually watched some of the talks. Just going around the people selling/advertising things you don't really get all that the festival was about.

Then today the day started with family things: talking with my parents, then talking with A's parents and then transformed into working at the garden and cutting down trees with a chainsaw (yes, I still have all my fingers - although it's not that easy to cut a finger with a chainsaw. It's easier to get a tree falling on your head, or things splintering into your eyes, or a chain breaking and flying to your arms, torso or legs. None of those things happened). Now the garden is a little bit more open, has two new trees, a rhubarb plant and I'm US$550 richer (through not being $550 poorer). There is still a lot to do, but we are slowly getting there.

Now going back to the past and considering my two new "projects" (not in many details. More details to go onto the other blog some day): a new recipe organizer project and EVE Online. A and I (where I is not an acronym) have decided to cook more often. What that means is that we plan recipes on the weekend and days each will be cooking. It's been interesting, but I feel like I can make the experience better.

First it still seems that we end up wasting food, because we try to diversify our meals and end up with ingredients that we have to buy in a larger quantity than we need for the recipe and don't use that in another recipe. Maybe if we were more aware of ingredients that would be left over, we could plan meals around those (if we could easily search for recipes by ingredient). Second, I would like to force more variety, especially on vegetables. Having something to make us aware of our imbalance might help on planning. Finally, I want to keep track of what we've tried and how it worked so that we can know what we can suggest to other people.

There are some websites out there with the ability to search by ingredients, to keep track of recipes and nutrition. However, they have two main problems: they are great for the recipes they have, but it's painful if you want to add recipes from different sources, like magazines. Also, in the nutrition side, they focus on calories/protein/carb/fat counting, and I don't think that this is what I want to track. What I want is to track things like grains, fruit, vegetables, etc. I don't mind much those nutrient counts.

Now onto EVE Online... Well, not much I can talk about this one that I haven't mentioned before. I'm still playing. Maybe 15 minutes to 1 hour every day or so. But I've reached the point where I was disappointed last time: one that your enemies get much better than you and you have to keep killing one or two and getting back to fix your ship. Then go back to it and slowly finish it. That's hard to do playing only at most 1 hour at night. So, we'll see...

I guess that's it. I was planning on going to a concert tonight, but spending the afternoon in the garden drained all the energy I had (ignoring the fact that the concert starts in 5 minutes and we finished the garden work for the day only half an hour ago and had to shower...). Now it's time to sit down and rest until dinner time.

Did I cover everything? Almost... I've skipped babies... That's just friends getting to the "having babies" period of their lives. It's exciting!

Friday, March 20, 2009

And that's the end of Battlestar Galactica

(don't worry, no spoilers here)

So I just came out of the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. I'm glad it's over. It wasn't a bad last episode, but it was a little long. Two hours of scenes that just didn't seem to finish. It's like the director knew that it was the end of it (or sort of - more on this later) and could make us bored. The series was good. Lots of people try to compare it to Babylon 5 as for the depth of the plot, but I think BSG was a little more linear, more focused on developing the characters than the story of old races just wanting to destroy the universe, while other old races don't want it to happen, but don't want to do much either.

In the end they both center around the human race and the evolution of it. That we have cycles, but we get better over time. And of course both of them have spaceships and space battles (although certainly BSG battles were much more intricate). It's actually interesting to watch again "old" series and see how much more effort has been put into realism and even acting.

What makes me sad is that it's not really over. They employ this "leftover energy" to just bank on it. Next month there is a new series starting, Caprica, from the same producers of BSG. It happens chronologically before BSG, which allows them with some opportunity to bring back the characters for a special appearance here and there.

But if this was not enough, they are also advertising for a new movie, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, which is supposed to show the events of BSG in the eyes of the cylons. Give me a break... Just let it go and move onto new ideas! Don't do like Crusade, the spin-off from Babylon 5 that had some interesting ideas, but just didn't get anywhere and died after 13 episodes. Check the wikipedia page that I've linked above to see some information about the mess that happens in the series, including episode orders and chronological orders...

Alright, now that I was person number 1 million to post about the last episode of BSG, I can go and rest. Weekend ahead!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blogging and reading and spending my time

Maybe it's because I'm an engineer, maybe because I have been working for "real" for some time, but one of the things that I spend a lot of time doing is paying attention to how I'm spending my time. Probably I do this to convince myself that I haven't done XYZ because I really didn't have time, and not that I was procrastinating. One of the things that I pay the most attention about is my time spending reading books.

As mentioned in more than one occasion before, because now my commute is much longer than it used to be, I'm now reading much more on the bus, which means that a larger piece of my day is spent on reading things. At the beginning I mostly read books, and was going through them in a rate of almost one a week (until I hit The Time or Our Singing, which was way too long to finish in a week).

But after some time, I felt like I had to spend more time better. So I decided to get a newspaper on my Kindle to read in the commute in the morning and leave the book only for the way back. I mentioned this already in the previous post that it didn't work quite well to do this morning-afternoon division, but I'm still sticking to it. Just going way slower through Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain.

This weekend and early this week, though, I decided to add one more thing to my list of current reads. Something that was bothering me greatly that I had stopped devoting time to reading: scientific papers. But not only this, in the spirit of a previous post I'm actually planning on taking the time to play around with the algorithms, post about them (not on this blog or else I would lose the few visitors I still have to this blog), and maybe even start discussions with the authors. That last part I'm a little afraid to commit to, based on my history of taking months to reply to emails. But at least I think I should start something.

And that should have made me quite energized and excited, right? That's what I thought so, but I still haven't felt it. I'm still a little numb. It feels like I need some sort of big change in something I'm doing. I just don't know which kind of change yet. Maybe I'm spending way too much time looking at shoe sizes and considering how wrong it all is. My orderly brain is shutting down not to thing too much about why such a simple concept can be implemented in such a terrible way. For example:

* Who came up with the idea of making US shoe sizes go to size 13.5 and then wrap back up to 1?
* Why did Mexicans decide that 26 for a shoe size is too big, so some brands simply decided to drop the "2" and call it a number 6? And, yes, there is a second number 6 for kids.
* Why are women's and men's shoe sizes different for the same shoe in US, Australia, UK (although some brands don't make it different), and Japan (although also the difference is not everywhere) - probably there are others too?

I'm writing code that, given a set of locales, it spits out all possible sizes in global order from smallest to largest. Yes, global ordering is not technically possible, but approximate global ordering can be good enough. I thought that this task was going to take about a day and a half to be done, but I've been working on it for about 2 1/2 days now and, although it's close, it's not finished yet. I'm yet to build all possible variations on size combinations.

Alright, I think i've spent enough time on this post already. I should go to bed. For some reason I woke up last night at 5 AM feeling fully refreshed, which was odd considering that I went to bed at almost 2 AM. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I'm feeling extra numb today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The confusion about taxes

Before you waste your time reading this, I have to warn you that I'm not an economist. My single class during college on economics for engineers cannot be considered background for what I'm about to discuss here, but I felt like it and, well, that's the beauty of self-publishing.

Anyway, now onto the point: I was reading an article on The New Yorker today:

NOT INSANE by Hendrik Hertzberg

The article discusses in general a controversy on how to give stimulus to the economy. He said that one of the latest suggestions by a group of republicans (that have to be contrary to the government - but that's reserved for a post on politics, which that's not the goal of this one) is to do a "payroll-tax holiday for a couple of years". In other words, not collect tax on salaries for some time, effectively increasing people's salaries.

The author then says that it's not a terrible idea, just not the best one and then suggests considering this later as a substitution for taxing things we don't want people to do, like carbon footprint, or using natural resources, polluting, etc.

It's an interesting thought. Tax what you don't want people to do, and not tax what you want to happen more often. Great alignment of incentives, right? Well, I quickly see four main problems with this:

1) It causes a shift on all finances: you make more money, but your cost of living also increases (as companies are now taxed more to produce things). In other words, automatic inflation. And what happens on a time of inflation spike? Everything that you've saved immediately loses value. You stop trusting savings, which increases the risk of the market and makes investments harder to happen.

2) It makes taxing more subjective: how to tell that my pollution should be taxed more than the other company's pollution? And I'm planting trees. Should I be getting some of my tax back even though it's hard to tell exactly how much a tree is offsetting my carbon footprint? It's very easy to get money out of money. It's all in one unit of measure.

3) Globalization: if you don't make the whole world adopt this, suddenly all your products become pretty much impossible to compete with foreign products. It's already hard because of the cheap labor in countries like China and India, now you add more taxes on the products. You can try to "fix" some of it by raising import taxes, but then you're going against the main conclusions of globalization: the competition and increased market of a globalized world is worth in the long term any cannibalization of local markets.

4) What about the things that are not tied to consuming? What about health care and social security? If you have a taxing plan that allows people to pay less taxes if they are smart, the income of the government will reduce over time instead of increase, which works against the needs for any first world country with populations that will keep aging and needing help. Yea, yea, we are talking about republicans that believe that public health and social security are a waste of government money and that people should be choosing what they want to do with their own health. I did consider this line of thought for a long time, but that goes against people's nature. I don't know how many times I've heard sick people deciding that it was better to just go to a pharmacy and pick up something that does not require prescription and get the wrong thing, just because going to a doctor was too much hassle. That's a sign of a broken system.

Anyway, as I said, who am I to have ideas about this? I'm sure those people that are proposing this had endless discussions with economists that built multiple models of the economy and believe that it does make sense in the medium or long term. It was an interesting article, nevertheless. I'm actually enjoying starting my week reading The New Yorker and skimming through the Wall Street Journal every morning. It's all because the Kindle 2 is a much better device for reading news.

The only problem with this is that I'm reading less books now. It takes me about 1 hour to go through the WSJ, which only leaves about 30-40 minutes of book reading every day. On Mondays that's usually taken by reading The New Yorker. So now I probably need to start reading when I'm at home too. So many things to do... But that should be the topic of another post some other day.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Sunday

Today is Sunday. And I'm having a semi-lazy day. Baking bread (that I'm not sure is going to work very well, as it didn't grow that much overnight), watching Tim Berners-Lee's TED talk on Linked Data, and planning on giving EVE Online - Apocrypha a try. I tried EVE Online for some time last year and it was kind of fun. Last week they released their new major expansion that handled some of the things I was annoyed about, like having one skill being learned and when it's done you had to realize it and be online to add a new one to learn. Now there is a queue that apparently lasts for about 24 hours (you can set a list of skills to learn as long as they last one starts in less than 24 hours).

Other things I hope to do today: add one more feature to my "text brain" (if you don't know what it is, don't worry - neither do I, I just created the name), and play around some more with entity extractors (hopefully starting to use some of the APIs to see how they do). I hope the rain stops for a little (and it doesn't start snowing again) so that I can check the level of my oil tank (for the heater). I need more data points to have an idea how much oil I use for heating the house.

Anyway, long day ahead! Hopefully...

Monday, March 09, 2009

A link is required

I've been reading about Wolfram|Alpha on this article on TechCrunch. The article's author is certainly a little too excited about it (Nova Spivack, the guy behind twine), but I think there is something to his excitement. Most commenters don't get it at all. Every time they hear something about somebody building a product to answer questions on the web, they think that it's a bust. History taught us that it's very likely to be a bust. Why would Wolfram have it different?

This is not the blog to go in details about this, but I think that, like most projects out there, they will only learn by trying. And it's not like other startups that build something like this hoping that they would be bought before they have to actually make it useful, Wolfram is probably a little too big to be going this path. Also, they have a name. Not a huge name outside the scientific community, but it's a brand anyway. So, they need to be careful with what they release. (what a terrible reason to be hopeful about a product, I know...)

But back to a high-level personal opinion: I hope they show us something new and not just flashy answers to the questions they've trained on and nothing else (that people like me can find). I've seen too much of this on [true knowledge] and it drives me crazy. I'll eventually go back to my project on modeling knowledge. I've been away from it for way too long.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

That's how violent Brazil is...

There is this uninteresting article on a man kidnapping an old lady near Brazil's capital (in Portuguese). So, if it's uninteresting, why am I sending a link to it? Well, because I found out about this article due to this Great review of the gun technology on Engadget.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The weekend

It's already Tuesday and only now I'm going to talk about the weekend, huh? Oh well, at least I convinced myself to post (to try to forget today and force myself to remember more interesting things).

So, last weekend I participated on Microsoft's Puzzle Hunt 12. It was an all-weekend event (which means that it starts at 10 AM on Saturday - I had to be there at 9 AM to set up my computer into the Microsoft network - and ends at 5 PM on Sunday) in which teams are given puzzles to solve and the team that wins is the first one that solves the final one, or the team that solves the most number of puzzles (technically, there were values for puzzles, so some puzzles were worth more than others). There were about 85 teams and my team was ranked 21st, which is not bad at all!

It was my first Puzzle Hunt, so I can't say that I did very well. Most of the puzzles don't really have instructions on what you have to do, just the knowledge that the answer is a word or short noun phrase. So, in order for you to do well, you have to get used to finding the patterns that suggest what kind of puzzle it is and how to solve it. For example, you look scrambled letters and if you see too many odd letters the first thing that should come to your mind is that it's gone through some sort of encryption.

Another important thing to learn is that they love to use pop culture (which I don't know much at all), so you have to look at a clue and quickly tie it to some pop culture reference to figure things out. Let me give an example:

All you have in your puzzle page is two columns of "equations" that one look like this:

26 = Z in W or MW

And the other looks like:


First you realize that it has some odd characters, so it must be going through some sort of encryption. Then, you have to realize that "W or MW" is in italics and could mean a name. Then you look at 26 and realize that it's the number of cases in the TV game show "Deal or No Deal". Finally you are able to tell that actually each capital letter is a word that starts with the decrypted letter. So:

Z => C
W => D
M => N

Then you'd have to apply that mapping that you learn on the first column onto the second column and figure out what phrase can be on the second column to fill out the ?s. Finally you reapply the decryption to what you find in the "?" (which were single letters) and find a question. The answer to the question is the answer to the puzzle (or something like that, I quickly realized I wasn't going to be able to answer this puzzle and let more abled people on my team deal with it).

It was certainly interesting. The people that organized it put a lot of work into it, including building a custom Halo level that was a puzzle by itself. Again, tiring (I didn't get any sleep all weekend long), but very interesting. I'll need to be more prepared if I decide to do it again in the future (if my team invites me again, as I was probably the person that answered the least number of puzzles on the whole team).

Another interesting perk that I got out of this experience was being in the Microsoft campus. It's very different in many ways to the Amazon buildings. First, it's a campus and not a spread of buildings around Seattle. Second, it has a lot of "empty space", while things are all quite "cozy" at Amazon. Third, their kitchen is way more well-equipped: with free soda and auto coffee maker (the one that you press a button and it makes coffee for you, instead of the one at work that somebody has to change the filter, put new grounds and brew new coffee). Chairs in the conference room were much more comfortable too (although we were on a VP conference room, so it's probably unfair to compare).

I don't really care about those things. I don't drink soda, I have times that I do drink coffee about once a day or so, but lately I've been buying and taking my own tea, so I don't even drink coffee any more. I like the fact that money that I'm helping Amazon make is not being spent on things that I don't really care to use. It's sort of the same way as living in your house and going to a hotel. The bed in the hotel can be more comfortable than yours, the TV might be bigger, the heater/air conditioning might work better, you have somebody to clean your room and make your bed every day, but it's not really a place you'd want to live. It just was build for a general guest and not for you.

Anyway, I guess that's the sum of my weekend. I've been a little introspective this evening, kind of bummed out because I didn't get much done today at work and ended the day with a 2-hour meeting to talk about plans of things to do that just made me realize that I'm completely confused about priorities and goals of the team. Maybe it's all a puzzle that I haven't figured out how to interpret yet. Next time I'll pay attention to all the words that people say while they are rubbing their nose and see if everything makes more sense this way.