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April 30, 2010

Apparently I am a bear

Last weekend (I think) I came down with an unseasonable head cold. Since then I abandoned my nascent coffee habit in favor of vast quantities of tea. Instead of the refined sugar I’ve favored since I learned to drink tea, I sweetened it with honey. (I also think I may have finally learned to like green tea.)

A bit more than a week ago, I bought a two-pound bottle of honey. It’s almost gone. I did some quick math with the nutrition label and my high-school-science estimating skills and decided that over the past 6 days, somewhere between 15 and 20% of my caloric intake* has been honey.

(* Of course, if I’ve mis-guessed at my daily caloric intake, I could be way off on my percentage guess.)

Posted by pjm at 7:21 PM | Comments (0)

Why so many people are complaining about Facebook

Sometimes there’s an uproar in the web-centric media I read about certain things which doesn’t really make sense unless you’ve been following some slow-moving changes which, frankly, might still be a bit too obscure unless you’re really geeky about this stuff.

The most recent example is the recent Facebook features. (If you haven’t already done so, I strongly suggest you read through how to disable Instant Personalization because it’s on for you by default.)

Today I explained the thumbnail sketch to a few clients who are pretty savvy people, so it’s worth spending a few sentences on it here. It’s a pretty easy story to follow.

Since the rise of Google, “search”, and Google in particular, has been the primary source of traffic to nearly every site on the web. Particularly in the middle stages of the last year, everything was geared to maximizing a site’s potential in the results pages of web searches, and some people are so used to the Google box that they find sites like Facebook by going first to Google.com and typing “Facebook” in the box. (It’s called “navigational search.”) Most sites got, or still get, anywhere from 50% to 90% of their traffic from search engines.

This gave Google a tremendous amount of power, obviously. By becoming the traffic driver of the web, they pretty much determined who lived and who died in the English-speaking web space, all else being equal.

A slow-building movement from the mid-90s and the Web 2.0 trend has been away from search and into “discovery.” delicious.com, the “social bookmarking” site, is an example of this; if you follow the bookmark streams of other people, and build a network of such streams to follow, you find your web traffic is no longer guided by what Google shows you. Facebook’s link-sharing feature works the same way. This is why every newspaper story on the web, (almost) every blog post or web page you visit has some kind of “share this!” widget and why websites talk about “viral marketing” again and about “the power of social media.” Now some sites are getting more than half their traffic from Facebook.

It’s also possible to use this link-sharing activity for discovery and ranking in traditional search as well; I always assumed that was why Yahoo! bought Delicious.com, although I’m not sure they ever leveraged that data.

Instant Personalization and “OpenLike” are Facebook’s bid to accelerate this trend. By becoming the place people go to start their web journey, they take over Google’s place at the top of the Web pile. It’s a bid for a huge amount of power:

“…it’s clear that Facebook is making a play to create, aggregate and own not only identity on the web, but everything that hangs off it. From Interests to Engagement – not just on their .com but across all sites. To do this they are giving publishers token value (analytics and traffic) to take over parts of the page with pieces of Facebook.com without giving them complete access to the user , their data or the user experience (all at the exclusion of any other player). In addition, they are building a semantic map of the Internet that will broker interests and data on a scale never before seen anywhere.”

That’s the politics of it in a nutshell. My tiny editorial comment is this: leery as I am of Google, I trust Facebook even less. Google at least seems to want to do the right thing; when they stumble it’s generally because they don’t understand the right and wrong of what’s going on. Facebook, on the other hand, has a history of doing whatever is likely to make them a buck. Given the choice, I’d pick Google.

Posted by pjm at 6:39 PM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2010

My status stream

In addition to its original category, you can also file this under “explaining things nobody really cares about in great detail.” But I promised to explain this a while ago.

With the rise of multiple competing platforms for status updates and/or microblogging, it can be a real pain to keep multiple venues up to date. There are now tools to keep this under control (desktop tools like TweetDeck or browser tools like HootSuite or Brizzly) but I didn’t want to sign up for something or run another application; I wanted to update in one place and let the update cascade.

The basic idea is that my updates cascade down this route:

identi.caTwitter → Facebook

I can insert an update at any point in the stream and it will cascade to the right.

To manage this, I use a Mac Dashboard application (no longer actively developed, but it works for me) called Chirp. I set up two Chirp instances in my Dashboard, one for Twitter and one for identi.ca.

Next I needed to set up the cascade. Identi.ca, being an open service, is fine with sharing updates, and it’s easy to set up an identi.ca account to update a Twitter account. Then I installed a Facebook application called Selective Twitter Status. This application takes anything that shows up in my Twitter stream which ends in #fb and makes it a status update on Facebook.

Now, the only thing I can’t do is post something only to identi.ca (and I can’t figure out why I would do that.

  • All three: post to identi.ca with #fb
  • identi.ca and Twitter: post to identi.ca without #fb
  • Just Twitter: post to Twitter without #fb
  • Twitter and Facebook: post to Twitter with #fb
  • Just Facebook: Log in and update

The hitch here might turn out to be LinkedIn, which currently just carries my Twitter feed.

This reads like something very complicated, but actually the concept is simple: don’t require multiple signups. If you’re following my Twitter stream, for example, you’re not missing anything if you’re not a Facebook friend of mine, and vice versa. (I know you were worried.)

Posted by pjm at 6:28 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2010

The promise and disappointment of LazyTweet

A few weeks ago, I posted a tweet asking a technical question and invoking the old LazyWeb.

(The LazyWeb concept, for those unfamiliar with it.)

I was startled to discover that someone had in fact created LazyTweet and they picked up my question automatically.

Intrigued, I answered a few LazyTweet questions and posted another one myself. I followed LazyTweet. And I found myself… frustrated and annoyed.

It turns out to be a classic problem of the web, and it’s a problem shared by a similar service, PeerPong. To address the “cold start problem” they are liberal about finding questions. This isn’t a complete solution to their problem, however, because it doesn’t address the problem of answers. With a lack of answers, new users can get frustrated and leave.

Also, by pulling in “questions” with a very loose pattern matching algorithm, the overall quality of questions sinks. They post a lot of questions which aren’t questions. They’re also tripped up by the very success of the “lazyweb” idea. See for example this case of PeerPong pulling in my initial tweet about LazyTweet and not being able to deal with it appropriately. Or genuine laziness on LazyTweet. Or, of course, LazyTweet spam.

I love the idea and I’d like to see it fly, but I think sites like Stack Overflow don’t need to be worried about LazyTweet any time soon.

Posted by pjm at 6:43 PM | Comments (0)

April 24, 2010

Keeping up with the Joneses

You need to trust me on something, and that is that this post is pretty ironic. Not the details of it; the fact of its existence.

The track season is now over for A’s team (yes, that’s early, but that story is too long to tell here, nor is it mine) and we celebrated a little by going down to the Spectrum 8 to see The Joneses. I’d heard nothing at all about this movie, which surprised me: Demi Moore and David Duchovny and no buzz? Huh?

It turned out to be a good choice. I won’t try to summarize the plot, because watching it unfold is really one of the joys of this movie. Instead, here’s why I thought it was good: it made me think without hitting me over the head with its message. It did not forget to tell a story, and if parts of the story are old they’re told in a new way. (In this way it has a lot in common with its slightly older sibling, “Up in the Air.”) It took a curious and perhaps a bit far-out premise, but then dropped in real characters (thanks, David, Demi) and followed the results out to their reasonable conclusions.

If you go see it—and if you liked “Up in the Air” you’ll like this—you’ll understand what’s ironic about this post.

Posted by pjm at 8:30 PM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2010

Is it really random?

“Random” is a word which gets used a lot these days, and mis-used almost as frequently as “literally.” But the more you learn about math (and computers) the pickier you get about what’s really random. (It happens that I documented when I reached the inflection point.)

(For what it’s worth, the common use of “random” is drifting towards “without pretense of organization or order,” or simply “miscellaneous,” but the true meaning is closer to “unpredictable” and the more you learn, the more you see how hard it is to be really, truly unpredictable.)

I got really excited a few months ago when I discovered random.org and their “Introduction to Randomness” page, which took me extra-long to read because I was following all the links. And then I saw Alisa using random.org to select a contest winner, which was something of a surprise to me; she could have rolled dice or pull names out of hats instead of going for industrial-strength randomness.

And then yesterday I saw Joe Palca’s All Things Considered story about scientists who pursuing true randomness yesterday (yes, there’s a sidebar about random.org), and I began to wonder if an appreciation for true randomness isn’t creeping back into the mainstream.

So, for the record: Roulette wheels and dice are not truly random; they’re only unpredictable because we don’t have enough knowledge about their starting states. (They’re also device-dependent.) Quantum decay, now that’s random.

Posted by pjm at 5:45 AM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2010

Following instructions is a basic job qualification

We posted a job listing yesterday. We put the listing on our website, then tweeted and posted to some relevant local mailing lists and to Craigslist.

In the twenty-four hours since then, we’ve had a bunch of responses. (I’m being deliberately vague about that number at this point, but maybe when the process is over we’ll talk numbers.) About half of them have been from individuals who, based on the text of the ad, legitimately consider themselves a good fit.

If you’re one of them, thanks. The rest of this isn’t about you. This is about the other half.

The last sentence of the listing reads, “This is an on-site position only, no telecommuters, please.” That sounds pretty harsh (particularly considering that I am a telecommuter these days) but it’s in there for a reason. We’ve been doing this for a little while now. (We’ll reach the end of our third year of incorporation not long after making this hire.) We’ve learned some stuff about how our business works, and we think we know what we need right now. Another person who isn’t in the office is not it.

And yet the other half of the contacts we’ve had are from contractors or freelancers, from all over the country, telling us we should be outsourcing whatever work we’re hiring for to them. Despite us putting a sentence in the listing which should indicate that we’re specifically not interested in doing that.

First off, I would never hire any of these companies because I would never hire someone who came into a job interview and told me they knew how to run my business better than I do. Even if they’re right, I’d rather hire someone with whom I don’t need to deal with that kind of arrogance.

Second, if we’re going to continue to deliver competent work to our clients, we need our team to understand the part of the job which has been assigned to them, and do it as assigned. These people have demonstrated in their first contact with us that they don’t read or follow directions.

They won’t be among those who hear back from us. If I thought they were actually paying attention, I might tell them why.

Posted by pjm at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2010

Life on the moon

I’m not a connoisseur of live albums. I like plenty of musicians who are often better live than recorded (Kathleen Edwards comes to mind) and plenty of songs which are powerful in the studio and don’t really play out on stage.

That said, I think the version of “Life on the Moon” with which Erin McKeown closes the “KCRW Presents” EP (you can stream the whole thing here) may be up there as one of my favorite live recordings.

Posted by pjm at 7:24 PM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2010

Prince of the Marshes

Earlier this week I finished reading Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. I read his The Places In Between a few years ago and liked it enough to want to read this one as well; I started reading it on the plane back from Doha, where I was closer to the spots Stewart describes than I had ever been before, or probably will be again.

As an official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Stewart’s time in Iraq (and therefore his book) only runs through the CPA’s “handover” of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities. Much of the book deals with the selection of and interactions with these authorities, generally people who had spent most of their lives under Saddam. Stewart, whose budget and poorly-defined mandate meant he spent much of his time in Iraq operating as something of a reluctant minor potentate, begins most of his chapters with epigraphs from the books of Machiavelli, and it took some time before I realized that they were meant to apply not to Stewart himself, but to his Iraqi counterparts. Most of them had learned from Saddam that power flows from the barrel of a gun; while Stewart was struggling to provide jobs, infrastructure, and electricity, the Iraqis were insisting that all they really needed was security: more and powerful weapons.

Stewart’s stories are both disheartening and illuminating, as he describes what must have been an incredibly stressful life between well-meant but impossible directives from a Baghdad apparently barely aware of the situations in the provinces and the whimsical “cooperation” of the Iraqi authorities in his districts.

A good example is his casting of the problem of looting. The Coalition was widely criticized for not doing more to prevent looting in Iraq following the collapse of Saddam’s government. Stewart points out that in many cases military commanders had to decide between putting soldiers in harm’s way, accepting casualties and possibly even deaths, not to mention possible civilian deaths, to protect (for example) office equipment (in the offices of a Coalition-backed governor), with the alternative of keeping their soldiers safer but risking a breakdown of civil security.

Reading Stewart won’t make us understand Iraq or what we’re doing there. (Part of the problem, he suggests, is that we keep changing our minds about the latter.) It might help us understand the degree to which we still don’t understand Iraq.

Posted by pjm at 2:08 PM | Comments (0)

Found money report

(If you’re interested in previous years’ annual reports, see 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.)

Today was the day I emptied out the found-money tin onto the table and did the counting for the previous year. As I get older I get less reticent about my odd pleasures and I have to admit I sort of look forward to sitting down with a pile of change; it reminds me of emptying out the piggy bank in my first decade and figuring out how much was really in there.

Last year may have been up; this year was down on almost every front.

  • Total value: $25.77, not including the two pennies damaged beyond usability and the one so battered it could only be recognized as a penny by circumference.
  • Three $1 bills was a nice change; we’d been a few years without finding folding money.
  • 32 dimes, just a bit more than half last year’s number
  • 84 dimes, down but not by such a large degree
  • 42 nickels, actually more than last year
  • 427 pennies (again, not counting the lost souls mentioned above), down by about 10%.
  • 0.03€ (in three euro-pennies), fivepence, and 1 grosz (which is 0.01 Polish złoty, and was the only loose change I found in Qatar. The fivepence, and one of the dimes, turned up in Heathrow.) Canadian currency was either not present or not noticed during the counting.

I didn’t subclassify the coins because my method isn’t patient enough, which means I don’t have a count of, for example, wheat pennies. I did have a buffalo nickel in pretty tough shape, however. (Research suggests its value at approximately $0.07, so I just rolled it up with the other nickels.)

The obvious reason for the decline this year is tied to the reason last year was such a good year. From November 2008 to August 2009, I worked in an office in downtown Amherst and walked back and forth to work. I also ran on many more residential streets. Since we moved to New York in August, my daily walking has dropped dramatically, and the streets on which I run are much less likely to bear loose change. (For whatever reason, there are a lot more coins on the ground where people park their cars.)

Every so often, when I get to run with the group in Amherst again, I spot a coin and ask why the town isn’t ankle-deep in loose change without me around to pick it up.

Posted by pjm at 1:31 PM | Comments (0)